Friday, February 12, 2016

'I Am A Prisoner Of Conscience': Pro-Biafra Leader Tells AFP

AFP
FEBRUARY 12, 2016





Abuja: A pro-Biafra leader whose arrest sparked a wave of protests across Nigeria’s southeast has told AFP from jail he is a “prisoner of conscience” and vowed to realise his dream of an independent state.

The head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group, Nnamdi Kanu, is accused by the state of “propagating a secessionist agenda” with the intention to “levy war against Nigeria”.

Kanu, who also runs the London-based Radio Biafra, is facing charges of treasonable felony, managing an unlawful society and illegally shipping radio equipment into the country.

He has been in custody since his arrest in October, despite being granted bail, and denied all charges.

His arrest and continued detention has made him a figurehead for his supporters, whose repeated marches in the southeast have increasingly led to clashes with the police.

“Biafra has come to stay,” Kanu told AFP in a text message via his brother, Prince Emmanuel Kanu, who met him on Thursday in Kuje prison on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

“They will kill us but by the end Biafra will come,” the 48-year-old added. “I am a prisoner of conscience and killing unarmed Biafran protesters is a crime against humanity.”

‘Third-class citizens’

A previous unilateral declaration of an independent Republic of Biafra in 1967 led to a brutal civil war that left more than one million dead in nearly three years of fighting.

Forced to surrender and chastened by war, dreams of a separate state for the ethnic Igbo group—the third largest in the country—waned.

But Kanu’s arrest and detention has galvanised support for the Biafra movement among young people who never knew the horrors of war and have little to lose in fighting for a better life.

Today the former regional power is impoverished, with dilapidated infrastructure and high unemployment fuelling resentment against the federal government.

“We have been failed in so many ways,” Kanu said, describing Igbos as “third class citizens”, echoing many in the region who say they are still being punished for the civil war.

Kanu, who has described Nigeria as a “zoo” which “has to come to an end”, was a relative unknown before his arrest.

But President Muhammadu Buhari, facing security threats from Boko Haram in the northeast and an uneasy peace in the oil-producing south, has said Kanu poses a threat to Nigeria’s fragile unity.

In December, a finger-wagging Buhari said Kanu committed “atrocities” against Nigeria, adding “there’s a treasonable felony against him and I hope the court will listen to the case”.

Police crackdown

Dressed in an outfit of pristine white and sporting a neat salt-and-pepper beard, Kanu last appeared in public at an Abuja court Tuesday, arriving in handcuffs and flanked by prison officers.

His lawyer spent the bulk of the afternoon fighting a state application to have some proceedings held behind closed doors.

“When people are refused access to the court, I ask myself are the defendants actually condemned before they are heard?” said Chuks Muoma, warning against a “secret trial.”

The prosecution alleges Kanu was running an armed group with ritual baptisms and young men conscripted as “Biafran soldiers”.

Kanu’s half-sister, Tonia Kanu, said the current response to the protests was only worsening the situation.

After the judge adjourned Kanu’s case until February 19, Tonia received reports that police had shot dead protesters in the southeast city of Aba.

A day later, police confirmed two protesters were killed, with 21 IPOB members arrested.

“People are being killed every day just because of peaceful protest. It’s too bad,” Tonia told AFP.

She flicked through her Facebook feed on her smart phone to show gory photos of dead protesters and a coffin covered with the Biafran flag—red, black and green with a yellow rising sun.

“The violence is to scare people, for them not to be serious,” she said. “But the more you kill them the more they multiply.”

AFP

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Parole Hearing Set For Robert Kennedy Killer Sirhan Sirhan

ASSOCIATED PRESS
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2016


Sen. Robert F. Kennedy awaits medical assistance as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. Sirhan Sirhan, who is serving a life sentence for the assassination of Sen. Kennedy, seeks freedom at his 15th parole hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. During his last parole hearing in 2011, Sirhan told officials of his regret but also said he could not remember the events of June 5, 1968. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times via AP, File)



SAN DIEGO (AP) — For nearly 50 years, Sirhan Sirhan has been consistent: He says he doesn't remember fatally shooting Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in a crowded kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Jerusalem native, now 71, has given no inkling that he will change his version of events at his 15th parole hearing on Wednesday in San Diego. He is serving a life sentence that was commuted from death when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

During his previous parole hearing in 2011, Sirhan told officials about his regret but again said he could not remember the events of June 5, 1968. The parole board ruled that Sirhan hadn't shown sufficient remorse and didn't understand the enormity of the crime less than five years after the killing of President John F. Kennedy — the senator's older brother — and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

His memory will be tested this time in front of Paul Schrade, 91, a Kennedy confidante who was one of five people injured in the shooting. Schrade will appear for the first time at a Sirhan parole hearing.

Schrade, who declined in a brief interview to preview his planned remarks to the parole board, has steadfastly advanced the view that there was more than one gunman. Sirhan initially refused to appear at the parole hearing at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, where he has been held since 2013, said Laurie Dusek one of his attorneys. Memories of the 2011 hearing made him physically ill, but Sirhan relented after Dusek begged him to come and said Schrade would be there.

Sirhan, who skipped earlier parole hearings, sent word through his brother, Munir, that he would appear, but Dusek said she didn't know what he will say, if anything. "If you don't show, you've got nothing to gain," Dusek said she wrote to Sirhan.

Schrade, who was western regional director of the United Auto Workers Union when he was shot in the head, was labor chair of Kennedy's presidential campaign and was at the senator's side the night he was gunned down moments after delivering a victory speech in California's pivotal Democratic primary.

Schrade has devoted the second half of his life to preserving Kennedy's legacy and trying to unravel questions surrounding the assassination. He proposed the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools at the site of the former Ambassador Hotel and has a library named for him there.

Schrade, who has kept a low profile in recent years, "is a family friend of the Kennedy's, he's very much in touch with the senator's children," Dusek said. "He feels that justice has not been served."

Author Dan Moldea said Schrade was instrumental in arranging 14 hours of interviews with Sirhan for Moldea's 1995 book, "The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy," which concluded Sirhan acted alone. Moldea began his research believing there was more than one gunman.

"Paul is a great man of honorable intentions at all times, but Paul has grabbed at every thread of conspiracy in this case," Moldea said. "When I concluded that Sirhan did it and did it alone, basically Paul cut me out of his life."

Sirhan's lack of memory of the attack makes expressions of remorse and accepting responsibility difficult. In one of many emotional outbursts during his 1969 trial, he blurted out that he had committed the crime "with 20 years of malice aforethought."

That and his declaration when arrested, "I did it for my country," were his only relevant comments before he said he didn't remember shooting Kennedy. Last year, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected arguments by Sirhan's lawyers that their client was not in position to fire the fatal shot and that a second shooter may have been responsible.

Some claim 13 shots were fired while Sirhan's gun held only eight bullets, and that the fatal shot appeared to come from behind Kennedy while Sirhan faced him.


Linda Deutsch, retired AP special correspondent, contributed to this report.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Special UN Event Mobilizes Action Towards Ending Female Genital Mutilation Within 15 years



Malian singer Inna Modja performs during a special event, Mobilizing to Achieve the Global Goals through the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by 2030. Having been subjected to FGM as a small girl, Ms. Modja advocates for the rights of women and girls. UN Photo/Manuel Elias


(UNITED NATIONS) -- 8 February 2016 – Marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), dozens of women, girls, experts, and United Nations officials gathered today at a special event at UN Headquarters to discuss ways of eliminating the harmful practice by 2030 and to celebrate the increased mobilization against it.

“I am proud to be among so many champions in the cause of eliminating female genital mutilation,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during his keynote address, highlighting that the event is also “a celebration of women's empowerment.”

FGM is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the genital organs of girls and women for non-medical reasons. It can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.

According to a new report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), girls 14 and younger represent 44 million of those who have been cut, with the highest prevalence of FGM among this age in Gambia at 56 per cent, Mauritania 54 per cent and Indonesia where around half of girls aged 11 and younger have undergone the practice.

For Malian singer Inna Modja, the pain of FGM as a teenager was both physical and emotional. Wiping tears off her cheeks, she told members of the audience that it affected her sense of identity and made her doubt what she could achieve.

“I lost my identity when I went through FGM – I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what was my place in society, I didn't know how strong I could be, because cutting me was telling me that I'm not good enough. So I had all these questions and music helped me to heal,” she explained.

Ms. Modja also shared that going through surgery to repair her mutilation helped a lot, because she felt she was doing something to get back what was taken away from her.

Today's event also featured the launch of a new international symbol on FGM which will serve as the banner going forward to show commitment to eliminating FGM by 2030. Last September, UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; for the first time, it includes a goal that explicitly names FGM as an instance of a “harmful practice” that should be eliminated to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment.

The UN also reports that over the last 10 years, budgeting for this issue increased by 600 per cent. Other achievements recent achievements include two more countries, Nigeria and the Gambia, passing legislation to ban FGM.

“Health workers in many countries are becoming more engaged as advocates and counsellors on FGM prevention in their communities. And young people themselves are serving as champions for FGM abandonment. We can see social change taking place at the community level,” said the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, in his remarks.

Since 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF have been leading the world's largest programme in 17 countries to end FGM within a generation. A central strategy of the programme is to support community-level activities to make individuals appreciate the benefits of not cutting their girls, to foster discussion, and generate sufficient collective support for entire communities to abandon the practice.

“This has resulted in more than 15,000 communities, representing around 12 million people, publicly declaring abandonment of FGM. But despite this progress, millions of girls are still at risk of being cut each year,” warned Dr. Osotimehin.

While in nearly all countries FGM is usually performed by traditional practitioners, UNICEF has found that more than half of girls in Indonesia underwent the procedure by a trained medical professional.

Addressing the challenges in her countries, the Minister of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection of Indonesia highlighted her Government's commitment to combatting FGM, but said it still has “a lot of homework to do.”

“In most cases, people aren't even aware of the existence of regulations on FGM,” said Yohana Yembise. “Moving forward the Government will continue to conduct programmes to raise awareness among the medical and health workers to stop practicing any forms of FGM procedures.”

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Syria Says Any Foreign Troops Would Return 'In Coffins'

ASSOCIATED PRESS
FEBRUARY 6, 2016


Syrians gather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey, in Syria, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Some thousands of Syrians have rushed toward the Turkish border, fleeing fierce Syrian government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes. Turkey has promised humanitarian help for the displaced civilians, including food and shelter, but it did not say whether it would let them cross into the country.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's foreign minister warned Saturday that Saudi or other foreign troops entering his country would "return home in wooden coffins" and asserted that recent military advances put his government "on track" to end the five-year-old civil war.

Walid al-Moallem's comments capped a week that saw the collapse of the latest U.N-led Syria peace efforts and a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive near the city of Aleppo that sent thousands of residents fleeing toward Turkey.

A Turkish official said Saturday that as many as 35,000 Syrians had massed along the closed border. Suleyman Tapsiz, governor of the border province of Kilis, said Turkey would send aid to the displaced, but had no immediate plans to let them in. He said Turkey was prepared to open the gates in the event of an "extraordinary crisis."

The Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Syrians have arrived at seven of the main informal camps close to the Turkish border. The group said the camps were already at capacity before the latest influx, and that aid groups are working around the clock to deliver tents and essential items to the displaced.

In Amsterdam, EU foreign ministers held informal talks Saturday with their Turkish counterpart. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged Turkey to open its borders to the Syrians and said the EU is providing aid to Ankara exactly for such purposes. She said the displaced are "Syrians in need for international protection," and that this was the message delivered in the meeting.

Some of the refugees found shelter in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave to Aleppo's north controlled by a militia known as the YPG, said a Kurdish official, Idris Naasan. The militia hoped to prevent a humanitarian disaster and help those stuck at the border, he said.

The week had begun on a somewhat hopeful note, with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura declaring the launch of indirect talks between a Syrian government delegation and opposition representatives in Geneva.

However, he was forced to adjourn by mid-week, after the opposition said there was no point negotiating while pro-government troops backed by Russian airstrikes escalated attacks and gained ground north of Aleppo, once Syria's largest city. The offensive appeared aimed at encircling strongholds rebels have held in the city since 2012.

The breakdown of the talks was followed by a warning from opposition backer Saudi Arabia that it is ready, in principle, to send ground troops to Syria, albeit in the context of the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State extremists who control large areas of Syria and Iraq.

Russia's Defense Ministry meanwhile said it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect that Turkey, another opposition ally, is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking during a visit to Senegal on Friday, dismissed the Russian claim as "laughable" and blamed Moscow for the deaths of civilians in Syria.

In his news conference Saturday, al-Moallem signaled a newfound confidence on the part of the Syrian government, boosted by growing Russian military support. This week alone, Russian warplanes hit close to 900 targets across Syria, including near Aleppo.

The foreign minister said recent territorial gains signal that the war is nearing its end. "I can say, from the achievements for our armed forces ... that we are now on track to end the conflict," he said. "Like it or not, our battlefield achievements indicate that we are headed toward the end of the crisis."

He called on rebel fighters to "come to their senses" and lay down their weapons. Asked about the possibility of Saudi ground troops entering Syria, he said logic would suggest this is unlikely, but that "with the crazy Saudi leadership nothing is far-fetched."

"Any ground intervention in Syria, without the consent of the Syrian government, will be considered an aggression that should be resisted by every Syrian citizen," he said. "I regret to say that they will return home in wooden coffins."

He repeated the line three times during the one-hour press conference, saying it applies to anyone who attacks Syria with ground troops. Iran, another military ally of Syria, ridiculed Saudi Arabia. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, as saying he didn't think the Saudis were "brave enough" to send ground troops.

"They talk big," Jafari said. "But even if it happens, it won't be bad because they would be definitely defeated." Iran on Saturday held funerals for six soldiers, including a senior Guard commander, Gen. Mohsen Ghajarian, who were killed in northern Syria while fighting alongside government troops.

Iran has said it has dispatched military advisers to Syria, but denies sending combat troops. A number of Iranians have been killed in recent months, including several high-ranking commanders. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, has also sent reinforcements to Syria.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported Saturday that a member of Hezbollah's "war media" department, which films military battles for the group, was among those killed in fighting north of Aleppo.

The U.N. envoy, de Mistura, has said the Geneva talks should resume by Feb. 25, though it's unclear if the delegations will return. The opposition has accused the government of acting in bad faith by launching the Aleppo offensive in parallel to the start of the talks.

Al-Moallem said the Saudi-backed opposition never intended to negotiate seriously. "They did not come to have dialogue, they did not have such orders," he said. The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, accused Russia of crimes against humanity because of the mass displacement of civilians from Aleppo. In a statement Saturday, the group called on the U.N. Security Council to denounce the Russian actions.

__ Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Nigeria’s Economic Woes Take Their Toll On Israeli Builder

HAARETZ THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2016


Nigeria's House of Representatives, Abuja



Housing & Construction Limited, the giant Israeli building company, has seen its share price lose more than a third of its value in the last six months as the economy of Nigeria reels in the face of plunging oil prices.

Housing & Construction, which is controlled by Shari Arison, the Carnival Cruise Lines heiress who also controls Bank Hapoalim, has been active in African countries for six decades, building big infrastructure projects, paving roads and constructing bridges.

But as the economy of Nigeria, which relies on oil, deteriorates, doubts are being raised about the $110 million the government owes the company - a debt that is equal to about a quarter of Housing & Construction’s shareholders equity. Moreover, projects worth $1.7 billion that the company is working on now, equal to about 40% of its order book, are threatened by delays or cancellations.


On Wednesday, the debt rating agency Maalot said it was retaining its A-plus rating for the company’s bonds but downgraded its outlook to Negative. It estimated that in 2015 the slowdown in Housing & Construction’s Nigerian operations slashed earnings before interest, taxes depreciation and amortization, or Ebitda, by 20%

Housing & Construction shares dropped another 5.9% on Wednesday to 5.17 shekels ($1.31).

Benny Delek, an analyst at Union Bank of Israel, is more sanguine. In a report issued Tuesday he said Nigeria was seeking emergency loans from the World Bank and other sources. “Therefore, risk of Housing & Construction’s Nigeria exposure isn’t as high as the market is seeing it. We still believe that in the end the problems in Nigeria will result in nothing more than a slowdown,” Delek said, noting that he was retaining a Buy recommendation in the stock.

Nigeria is planning to borrow as much as $5 billion to help fund a deficit due to the slump in global oil prices, which have also sent its naira currency into a tailspin. On Tuesday it asked the African Development Bank for a $1 billion loan to help fund an increased budget deficit.

Housing & Construction executives say the loans should enable Nigeria to return to normal economic activity and bring an end to a year of uncertainty. In the meantime, however, the company’s operations have shrunk since a change in government last April, when President Muhammadu Buhari took office.

Nevertheless, executives say they did not think that the existing orders backlog of $1.7 billion would be threatened by the financial crisis, but uncertainty could delay the timetables for some projects.

Another Israeli company that operates in Nigeria is Electra, which leads big projects in air conditioning and electricity and electro-mechanical systems in office buildings and commercial structure. But its exposure to Nigeria is much smaller than Housing & Construction’s. In the first nine months of 2015, Electra derived just 150 million of its 4 billion shekels of revenue from Africa and elsewhere overseas.

With reporting from Reuters.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

UI Health Physician Helps Treat Sickle Cell Disease In Nigeria

UIC NEWS


Damiano Rondelli (fourth from right), and Victor Gordeuk (thrid from left) visit Nigeria in October to meet with medical personnel, patients and their families.



A UIC physician is helping establish a bone marrow transplant center in Nigeria to treat sickle cell disease. 

The need there is far greater than in any other country, says Damiano Rondelli, director of the UI Health blood and bone marrow transplant program.

 Nigeria has about 91,000 sickle cell births a year — more than in any other of the 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are most affected. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo, at about 39,750 births, is No. 2. The total number of babies born with sickle cell in the 10 sub-Saharan nations is more than 242,000 — more than two-thirds of the 305,800 births worldwide. About 5 million Nigerians have sickle cell, compared with about 100,000 in the U.S.

 “The relevance of treating sickle cell disease in Nigeria is huge,” said Rondelli, chief of hematology/oncology at UI Health. He visited Nigeria in late October with Victor Gordeuk, director of the UIC Sickle Cell Program. They met with medical personnel, sickle cell patients and their families. The chief medical director of the University College Hospital of Ibadan, Temitope Alonge, “embraced with enthusiasm the vision that we brought, and is willing to support the project as well as finding funds,” Rondelli said. It could be one to two years before the center opens, he said. 

Rondelli has already helped set up bone marrow transplant units in Bangalore, India, and Kathmandu, Nepal, which treat several blood diseases, not just sickle cell. At UI Health, physicians have cured 12 adult patients of sickle cell disease using stem cell transplantation from healthy, tissue-matched siblings. 

The technique eliminates the need for chemotherapy to prepare the patient to receive the transplanted cells. The transplants were the first performed outside the National Institutes of Health campus in Maryland, where the procedure was developed. Doctors have known for some time that bone marrow transplantation can cure sickle cell. But few adults received transplants because high-dose chemo was needed to kill off the patients’ own blood-forming cells — and their entire immune system — to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells, leaving them open to infection. 

In the new procedure, patients receive immunosuppressive drugs just before the transplant, along with a very low dose of total body irradiation, a treatment much less harsh than chemo. Sickle cell disease is inherited. It primarily affects Africans and people of African descent, including about one in every 500 African Americans born in the U.S. The defect causes the oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be shaped like a crescent, or sickle.

 The misshapen cells deliver less oxygen to the body’s tissues, causing severe pain and, eventually, stroke or organ damage. 

Quest For Zika Vaccine Widens; Africa, Asia Deemed Vulnerable

BY STEPHANIE NEBEHAY AND DOMINIQUE VIDALON
REUTERS, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016


CEO of Genekam Biotechnology, Sudhir Bhatia shows a test kit for the Zika virus at Genekam Biotechnology AG in Duisburg, Germany, February 2, 2016. Image: Ina Fassbender


The Zika virus could spread to Africa, Asia and southern Europe, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, as major French drugmaker Sanofi SA and others joined the race to create a vaccine.

A day after Geneva-based WHO declared an international public health emergency due to Zika's association with the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil, the United Nations agency said it had launched a global response unit to fight the mosquito-borne virus that is spreading rapidly in Latin America.

Babies born with microcephaly have abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.

"Most important, we need to set up surveillance sites in low- and middle-income countries so that we can detect any change in the reporting patterns of microcephaly at an early stage," Dr. Anthony Costello said in Geneva. Costello is WHO's director for maternal, child and adolescent health.

Twenty to 30 sites could be established worldwide, mainly in poor countries without robust health care systems.

The Pan American Health Organization said Zika was now spreading in 26 countries and territories in the Americas.

The virus was first identified in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda while scientists were studying yellow fever, according to the World Health Organization. It was identified in humans in 1952. Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus.

There is no vaccine or treatment for it.

Sanofi's announcement marked the most decisive commitment yet by a major vaccine producer to fight Zika. The company said its Sanofi Pasteur vaccines division would use its expertise in developing vaccines for similar viruses such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue.

"Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine given the disease's rapid spread and possible medical complications," said Nicholas Jackson, research head of Sanofi Pasteur, who is leading the Zika vaccine project.

The WHO called for urgent development of better tests to detect the virus in pregnant women and newborn babies.

The new global response unit will build on lessons learned from West Africa's Ebola crisis, Costello said. The WHO was criticized for a slow reaction to the Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 10,000 people.

"The reason it's a global concern," Costello said of Zika, "is that we are worried that this could also spread back to other areas of the world where the population may not be immune."

Costello said Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus "are present ... through Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly South Asia." Africa and Asia have the world's highest birth rates.

'GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT'

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said on Monday it was "strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven" that Zika causes microcephaly.

Costello, a pediatrician, said WHO was drafting guidelines for pregnant women and mustering experts to work on a definition of microcephaly that would include a standardized measurement of baby heads.

"We believe the association is 'guilty until proven innocent,'" he said, referring to whether Zika causes microcephaly.

The WHO office for Southeast Asia, issued a statement urging countries in the region to "strengthen surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus disease which is strongly suspected to have a causal relation with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities."

Small biotech companies and academic institutions have plans to develop a Zika vaccine, and GlaxoSmithKline PLC has said it is concluding feasibility studies to see if its vaccine technology was suitable. And on Tuesday other companies joined the effort.

U.S. drug developer NewLink Genetics Corp, which is also developing an Ebola vaccine with Merck, said it has started a project to develop Zika treatment options.

The University of South Australia said it was working on a Zika vaccine with Australian biotech Sementis Ltd.

Experts have said a Zika vaccine for widespread use is months if not years away.

An Australian state health service said two Australians were diagnosed with the virus after returning from the Caribbean, confirming the first cases of the virus in the country this year.

Officials said mosquitoes carrying the virus had been detected at Sydney International Airport, but they said it was unlikely the virus would establish local transmission given the lack of large numbers of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Brazil, which has 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly that may be linked to Zika, is scheduled to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Thailand played down the threat posed by Zika, and its public health ministry said the country should not worry about the virus. Thailand has confirmed one case of it this year.

Neighboring Malaysia and Singapore have said they are at high risk for the spread of Zika if the virus turns up in those countries.

(Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Ben Hirschler in London, Jane Wardell in Sydney, Amy Sawitta Lefevre in bangkok, Pedro Fonseca in Rio, Ankur Banerjee and Amrutha Penumudi in Bengaluru; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Uganda's Zika Forest, Birthplace Of The Zika Virus

CNN TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016

A well worn sign is the only indication of the start of the Zika forest, Uganda's only preserve devoted entirely to science research.



Zika Forest, Uganda (CNN) -- The turnoff into the Zika Forest is easy to miss, just a small break in the tree line along the main road between Entebbe Airport and Uganda's capital, Kampala. A worn-out sign announcing its start only comes into view after a journey down a small dirt path.

The explosive spread of the Zika virus may have caught the world by surprise, but its namesake, the forest preserve near the edge of Lake Victoria, isn't a place to just stumble on to. The researchers who have been coming here for more than a half-century come with a purpose: to study viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them.

"Every year we come across new viruses," said Julius Lutwama, lead researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), which owns the forest. "In the last five years or so, almost each year we come across a new virus in this country."

Uganda sits in the middle of seven distinct biogeographic zones. To the east: the savannahs of Kenya and Tanzania. To the west: the Congo basin rainforest. And Lutwama credits that biodiversity for attracting the first scientists here in the 1930s.

The discovery

What began as a Rockefeller Foundation-funded yellow fever outpost in 1936 soon became a leading laboratory in the study of tropical diseases and later evolved into UVRI in 1977. At the center of all that research is the Zika Forest.

Researchers, realizing in the mid-1940s that different mosquitoes are active at different elevations, constructed a massive steel structure in the middle of the forest to conduct their yellow fever experiments. The lead in the project was a Scottish medical entomologist named Alexander Haddow.

"All of my bedtime stories revolved around my grandfather or my father's experiences growing up in East Africa. As a small child I learned about the Zika Forest, Zika virus and the tower that my grandfather built with funding from the WHO," said Andrew Haddow, Alexander's grandson, who is now a researcher working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

He says he tried other careers, but the choice should have been clear from the beginning.

"I read all of his papers and the papers that came out of the lab," Andrew Haddow said. "We owe our basic understanding of many arboviruses and their associated mosquito and reservoir species to them."

It was in April of 1947, while studying yellow fever, that Alexander Haddow and colleague George Dick first identified Zika virus after a fever developed in a rhesus monkey placed on a wooden platform on his recently constructed tower. Blood samples revealed an unknown virus that, as protocol dictated, was named Zika after the forest in which it was first identified.

The Spread

They still use Haddow's tower today. Just before a recent sunset, a team from UVRI pulled up to the forest edge and unloaded two large Styrofoam coolers from the back of a pickup truck. Dry ice fog poured from the coolers' edges as they assembled the mosquito traps and headed into the forest toward Haddow's Tower.

Its sides are now rusted and a few of the wooden platforms where they now hang mosquito traps are in varying states of disrepair. Scientists say surrounding construction threatens to make this small preserve even smaller and the research they used to carry out weekly has tapered off. Just like the virus that bears its name, they say, little attention has been paid to Zika Forest.

When first identified, the virus was only proven to infect monkeys. Even in the subsequent decades, when a dozen or so isolated human cases began to emerge, the symptoms were mild and Zika was never seen as a threat in Uganda.

"It was never viewed with importance," said Lutwama. "No one is interested in making a vaccine for a virus that only causes mild symptoms."

Marilyn Parsons of the Center for Infectious Disease Research says it's also hard to distinguish Zika's symptoms from other similar arboviruses.

"It was hard to quantify how much Zika infection there was and its impact, since its symptoms are quite similar to other viruses varied by the Aedes mosquitoes: dengue and chikungunya," said Parsons.

It's unclear just how long Zika has been around because some studies have found immunity in populations in Africa and Asia, perhaps due to the similarity to other viruses.

All of that changed in 2007, when the first large outbreak of Zika was reported on Yap Island in Micronesia, Haddow said. Chikungunya and West Nile followed similar courses. "West Nile circulated for at least 62 years before it emerged in New York City in 1999. The common theme of all of these viruses is that they were not widely studied and they all emerged after a long period of time to cause severe illness."

More troubling, many scientists believe the 2007 strain of Zika has mutated from the original virus found in Uganda, with increased virulence. Subsequent years saw the virus spread quickly through the Pacific islands before landing in South America and Brazil in 2015, where there's a suspected correlation to an increase in the birth defect microcephaly and other serious conditions.

'Preparing For The Next Zika Now'

Louis Mukwaya's office sits in a prime location on the UVRI campus in Entebbe. Just right of the main doors, it's a large space that somehow manages to have every surface filled with stacks of papers. He started at the institute in 1965, just a few years after Alexander Haddow would step down as its head. A picture of Haddow still hangs in his office. Next to it, a picture of Mukwaya with the younger Haddow from 2013 when he visited the research center his grandfather helped create.

"He was a very hardworking man," Mukwaya said of the elder Haddow, before turning his attention to the virus Haddow first identified all those years ago. "You know I keep reading on the Internet about Zika in Brazil and they keep using the word, 'emerging,' 'emerging' infection. We've known about it for a long time, but then even we don't know what will happen with the virus."

Mukwaya said the institute and others like it simply don't have the resources to properly study emerging viruses.

"We used to do routine collections once a week," said the renowned entomologist. "These days we don't get out nearly as much. Funding is poor, this is the problem."

Vaccine and drug development can take years, so basic research that lays the foundation is crucial, Parsons said. "This type of research could identify drug targets, vaccine antigen targets, and develop models for testing them," she added.

A climb to the top of the tower that Andrew Haddow's grandfather helped build more than a half-century ago reveals that the once remote research outpost now is entirely surrounded by Uganda's urban centers. Any new viruses discovered here will no longer be considered remote.

"The current Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America is another wake-up call that increased globalization and climate change will continue to lead to the emergence of viral pathogens," said Haddow. "We need to be preparing for the next Zika virus now."

Scientists' Path To Usable Zika Vaccine Strewn With Hurdles

REUTERS
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016




The world is once again asking scientists and drugmakers to come up rapidly with a vaccine for a viral disease that, in the latest case, few people had heard of until a few weeks ago, and even fewer feared.

Making a shot to generate an immune response against Zika virus, which is sweeping through the Americas, shouldn’t be too hard in theory. However, producing a safe, effective and deliverable product to protect women and girls who are at risk is not easy in practice.

For a start, scientists around the world know even less about Zika than they did about the Ebola virus that caused an unprecedented epidemic in West Africa last year. Ebola, due to its deadly power, was the subject of bioterrorism research, giving at least a base for speeding up vaccine work. This time, the knowledge gap is more daunting.

There are just 30 mentions of Zika in patents, against 1,043 for Ebola and 2,551 for dengue fever, according to Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index. And there have been only 108 high-profile academic papers on Zika since 2001, against more than 4,000 on Ebola, as found in the Web of Science.

Still, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Butantan Institute in Brazil have started work on potential candidates for a Zika vaccine, and several biotech firms are in the race. They include NewLink Genetics, which helped develop the first successful Ebola vaccine with Merck & Co.

Importantly, there is now a “big gun” vaccine maker with skin in the game: Sanofi’s said on Tuesday it will launch a Zika vaccine program, a day after the World Health Organization declared the disease and its suspected links to birth defects an international health emergency.

Canadian researcher Gary Kobinger told Reuters he believes an experimental Zika shot might be able to be used on a limited emergency basis as soon as late 2016, although full regulatory approval will take years.

Ben Neuman, an expert on viruses at Britain’s University of Reading, says there are many hurdles ahead. “To be useful, a Zika vaccine would need to be effective and safe, but it’s difficult to do both,” he told Reuters. “It’s a balancing act.”

That’s because a good vaccine works by provoking the immune system into a strong response - but not enough to make a person sick - and there is no simple way to assess the right immune response for Zika, according to one drug company expert.

Zika infection is so mild in the vast majority of cases that its victims are unaware they are even infected, so this group of potential patients is unlikely to need or want immunization.

The crucial target group is women who may be pregnant, since the disease’s greatest suspected threat is the possible link to severe birth defects.
CLINICAL TRIALS

All of this makes developing and testing a vaccine highly complex, especially since pregnant women are often excluded from clinical trials until the safety of new drugs or vaccines is well-established in other population groups.

It also makes for an uncertain and potentially limited market for any Zika vaccine.

Assuming Sanofi or another company succeeds in developing one, the vaccine may be used only in teenage girls - protecting them before they are likely to become pregnant - in countries and regions where Zika-carrying mosquitoes thrive.

“It’s a public health good initiative, it’s not necessarily a commercial initiative,” said Berenberg Bank analyst Alistair Campbell. “Zika is something that has cropped up suddenly and may well dissipate, so there may not be a sustainable annual cohort of patients for vaccination.” Still, the WHO and other public health authorities will be relieved that one of the world’s top drugmakers has pledged to work on a vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline is also investigating Zika and a spokeswoman reiterated on Tuesday it is concluding feasibility studies to see if its vaccine technology might be suitable.

Ultimately, developing vaccines is a question of priorities, as evidenced by a patchy pattern of protection against a range of mosquito-borne viruses over the past 80 years.

There was early success with the development in 1938 of the first vaccine against yellow fever, which belongs to the same virus family as Zika. More recently, drugmakers have successfully developed shots against Japanese encephalitis and dengue. The first dengue vaccine, from Sanofi, was approved in December - after 20 years’ work. Work on other mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile fever and chikungunya is still underway.

Funding Falls Short For Task Force To Fight Nigeria's Boko Haram

REUTERS
ADDIS ABABA, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016



A signboard rests against a wall in a compound in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10, 2015. Image: Akintunde Akinleye


Funding for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram's deadly Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa remains well short of its target, an African Union official said on Tuesday.

So far donors, including Nigeria, Switzerland and France, have pledged about $250 million to fund the 8,700-strong regional force, the African Union's Peace and Security Council said after a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss funding.

The talks followed the militia's latest attack, which killed at least 65 people in northeast Nigeria on Saturday.

The $250 million includes both previous pledges and those made during Monday's conference, said Orlando Bama, communications officer for the African Union's Peace and Security Council. He did not give further details.

That covers just over a third of the $700 million budget announced for the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) last year.

The task force -- to be made up of regional African militaries -- has yet to mobilise. Instead, national armies are tackling Boko Haram individually, but they often cannot follow the insurgency across the region's long, porous borders.

The region threatened by Boko Haram is one of the poorest in the world, and all the countries in the task force, barring Benin, are oil producers whose budgets have been battered by falling prices.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of people and driven more than 2 million people from their homes during its six-year insurgency.

Regional armies from Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year that ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance.

But progress has been slow.

"The answer lies in there being political will and the capability to back the force," said Imad Mesdoua, at Africa Matters consultancy in London. "This has been a regular problem with multi-national task forces in Africa."





(Reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Edward McAllister in Dakar; writing by Edward McAllister; editing by Katharine Houreld)

Nigerian Separatists Hijack Ship, Demand Release Of Leader

BY MICHELLE FAUL AND HARUNA UMAR
ASSOCIATED PRESS, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016


In this Friday Jan. 29, 2016 file photo, Biafran separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu, center right, speaks to his lawyers at the Federal High court in Abuja, Nigeria.



ABUJA, NIGERIA (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — 
Nigerian separatists have hijacked a merchant ship and threatened to blow it up with its foreign crew if authorities do not release a detained leader agitating for a breakaway state of Biafra, military officers said Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Rabe Abubakar, the Defense Ministry spokesman, confirmed the hijacking occurred on Friday and called it "an act of sabotage." He did not tell reporters the name of the ship.
Abubakar spoke on Monday. Other officers on Tuesday told The Associated Press that the navy is in pursuit of the captured vessel. The officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, said the hijackers have given the government 31 days to free Kanu or say they will blow up the ship along with its crew.
Maritime industry reports indicated the vessel was an oil tanker seized about 100 miles (160 kilometers) off Nigeria's Bakassi Peninsula, along Nigeria's southeastern Atlantic Ocean coastline, near the border with Cameroon.
"The group boarded the tanker from two fast boats and took control over the vessel and locked the crew in the mess room" before heading for the Niger Delta, the Bulgarian-based Maritime News reported.
The ultimatum from the separatists was given at the weekend by "General Ben." Ben is not a separatist but "some Niger Delta militants have shown interest in working with us," said Uchena Madu, a leader of the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra.
The hijacking — the first such act claimed by the separatists — indicates they could be working with some Niger Delta oil militants blamed for recent bombings of pipelines in the oil-rich south, escalating conflict in a country already burdened by Boko Haram's deadly Islamic uprising in the northeast and violent ethno-religious confrontations between farmers and herders in central Nigeria. Africa's biggest economy and oil producer also is battered by slashed petroleum prices.
Secret police on Oct. 17 detained Nnamdi Kanu, director of banned Radio Biafra, and since have accused him of terrorism, sparking protests in which police are accused of killing several demonstrators.
Nigeria's Igbo people prosecuted a civil war to create a separate state of Biafra in the southeast that killed a million people in the 1960s. Many Igbos charge they still suffer discrimination.
In an apparently unrelated development, pirates seized the Greek-owned chemical tanker MV Leon Dias off Nigeria's coast, according to an official of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. He said it was hijacked on Friday, other reports said Sunday, and diverted to an oil terminal off Cotonou, capital of neighboring Benin. Maritime News said the chief officer was seriously injured and is being held hostage with four other seamen.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria. Associated Press writer Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Warri, Nigeria.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

More Than 2100 Pregnant Women Infected By Zika In Colombia






Zika Virus is transmitted through mosquitoes in South America and Central America, The Caribbean and Mexico, and it is causing major health problems for pregnant women.

Nigeria’s minister of health Isaac Adewole said the travel restriction, especially on pregnant women, will be on until the situation improves worldwide.

An emergency committee from the World Health Organization will meet February 1 to discuss the global threat from Zika, which it says could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas this year, based on models from the spread of dengue. For that reason women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should avoid travel to affected countries if at all possible.

But the state Department of Public Health said, “While the association is compelling, it is not known if the increase in microcephaly cases is directly caused by Zika virus infections”.

Genetically modified mosquitoes that will help fight the Zika virus are getting urgent attention from American regulators.

On Friday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vowed to “win the war” against the virus, but some experts criticized her government’s response and warned the Olympics could fuel the disease’s spread.

Only 31 travelers have returned to the US with Zika virus infections since it was first detected in Brazil in May 2015. The outbreak in Brazil led to reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome and pregnant women giving birth to babies with birth defects and poor pregnancy outcomes. Health officials are fighting back with pesticides and warnings for people to remove standing water and to cover up.

In the event of a strong outbreak of the disease in Argentina, the specialist said the northeastern provinces would face the greatest risk due to their proximity to countries where the largest number of cases have been reported and because their high temperatures would allow an infected mosquito to live longer.

Child Neurologist Vanessa Van Der Linden observes the X-ray of a baby’s skull with microcephaly at the hospital Barao de Lucena in Recife, Brazil, January 26, 2016.

The mosquito-borne illness may cause birth defects.

It said men should wear condoms for 28 days after “return from a Zika transmission area” if they experience no symptoms of unexplained fever and rash. Companies and scientists are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine for Zika, but one is not
expected to be ready for months or years.

Leprosy: Nigerians Still Living In Ignorance Of Its Causes, Symptoms

BY KUNI TYESSI
LEADERSHIP NIGERIA, FEBRUARY 1, 2016



(NIGERIA) -- Another World Leprosy Day has come and gone and the disease is still spreading with 3,000 new cases been reported annually in Nigeria, especially with the involvement of child-related cases. KUNI TYESSI in this report highlights the causes, symptoms, treatment as well as preventive measures as many still live in ignorance of it.

Known as Hansen’s Disease, leprosy is caused by a type of bacteria otherwise known as mycobacterium leprae and is known to multiply very slowly. Its incubation period is said to be between 5 years while symptoms can take 20 years to appear and it mainly affects the skin and peripheral nerves.

Throughout its history, leprosy has been feared and misunderstood with several mythical and cultural undertone attached to it. For a long time, it was thought to be a hereditary disease, a curse, or a punishment from God as there are stories in the Bible that suggests this.

Before and even after the discovery of its biological cause, leprosy patients were stigmatized and shunned. For example, in Europe, historical fact records that during the Middle Ages, its sufferers had to wear special clothing and ring bells to warn others that they were close, and even walk on a particular side of the road, depending on the direction of the wind. Even in modern times, its treatment has often occured in seperate hospitals and live-in colonies called leprosariums because of the stigma of the disease.

Contrary to the social stigma, it is not highly contagious, and does not cause body parts to fall off. It is not also caused by witchcraft, neither are the suffers witches or wizards. In fact, 95% of the world’s population is naturally immune to the disease and once diagnosed, a person is easily cured.

It is not highly infectious and transmission from human to human is through respiratory droplets from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases. It’s also possible to get the bacteria from armadillo and other non-human primates.

Leprosy, if left untreated is capable of causing damage to the nerves, limbs, skin and eyes as seen in most patients. The deformities in the fingers and toes occure due to cartilage being absorbed back into the body and they are not leprosy but the aftermath of late diagnosis and treatment and this can happen in the case of other diseases.

This damage gives the patient decreased feeling in the areas affected. The decreased feeling can leave the patient unaware that they have injured themselves and they can get secondary infections. These infections result in the loss of body tissues.

The symptoms are wide and can start out mild and progress into presentations that are the subject of misconceptions and cultural beliefs. The hallmark signs of leprosy are hypesthesia, which is an abnormally weak sense of pain, cold, heat, or touch, skin lesions, and peripheral neuropathy.

The first visible indication that someone has leprosy usually has to do with the skin. Things like painless skin patches (lesions) that are not itchy begin popping up. They tend to be circular with a dry scaly centre. These usually first present themselves on the buttocks, face, and the surfaces of limbs. This is because the bacteria prefer cooler zones of the body. In fact, the organisms involved grow best at 80-86 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the disease progresses, the skin’s features like sweat glands and hair follicles are destroyed. Further, the nerves become enlarged and can become quite painful. The patient loses their ability to “feel” and they can injure themselves easily. These injuries lead to muscle atrophy, weakness, and infections. This can cause “foot drop” or clawed hands. Ulcers can also form on the hands and feet.

As the face becomes involved, a person can begin to sound hoarse, loose their eyebrows, and eyelashes. Their nasal cavities may collapse because of the breakdown in the septum. When the eyes become involved in the process, the person can get glaucoma or keratitis. The facial skin can also become thickened and corrugated. When it remains untreated, the progressive impairment becomes permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) still remains the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.

In 1991, WHO passed a resolution that would eliminate leprosy as a problem by the year 2000 (the definition of a problem meaning less than 1 case per 10,000 people). Due to the advances in drug treatments and the use of multi-drug therapies, WHO did accomplish their goal. In 1995, they began offering free therapies to any patient in the world who contracted the disease. Nigeria still records about 3000 cases annually and more disturbing are cases of children who have been affected by the disease, thereby leaving experts in the field of medicine and other stakeholders to declare that on no account must children be allowed to suffer such.

A person is also not contagious after a few weeks of the treatment. This, combined with many surgical options that decrease a person’s deterioration and increase their nerve function, give leper colonies everywhere something to party over.

The national director of The Leprosy Mission, Nigeria, Dr Moses Onoh, further creates awareness about the disease so that people can understand it’s signs, symptoms, prevention as well as treatment, based on the standard of the World Health Organisation, WHO.

He said referring to victims of the disease as lepers is derogatory and as such, the proper way to define them is “ persons affected by leprosy” as it is a disease that can affect anyone and therefore called for good general hygiene as the disease is caused by germs that reside and breed in dirty environments.

“They are not lepers but persons affected by leprosy. The reason why the ailment still persists is because most people do not know the signs and symptoms and so do not come out early enough for treatment. “

“The deformities you see on persons affected by leprosy is a result of late treatment but is not leprosy in itself. Most of them do not come for treatment until they are faced with the deformities. It’s just a deformity which can also occur in other ailments.

It is not contagious and can be treated and the treatment is free.”

“We always advise that once a patch is discovered on the skin, such persons should go for test because it can be a sign of leprosy. The patches do not often itch and are not painful. However, that a patch has been seen on the skin doesn’t mean it is leprosy until a test has been done and proven otherwise.”

He said there are wonder drugs that care cure the disease and called on medical doctors to always refer pregnant women for test whenever a patch has been noticed on their bodies during check-up as loss of fingers is not a parameter to diagnosing the disease.

He revealed that there are four organisations in Nigeria which oversee leprosy- related diseases and are committed to its total eradication. They are based in Enugu, Enugu state, Jos, in Plateau state, Ibadan in Oyo state and Abuja the federal capital territory which are situated in the south-east, south-west, north-central and the nation’s capital respectively.

African Union Buckles As Burundi Force Blocked By Government Refusal

Clashes between government loyalists and the opposition have become increasingly violent.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016


The unrest began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July ( Carl de Souza (AFP/File) )
"Carl de Souza (AFP/File)"


African leaders failed on Sunday to authorize a proposed peacekeeping force to stem violence in Burundi in the face of vehement opposition from the government in Bujumbura.
Instead, the African Union is to send envoys for more talks, although previous negotiations have done nothing to end months of conflict.
The United Nations has warned that Burundi risks a repeat of the 1993-2006 civil war, with hundreds of people killed since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a controversial third term.
At least 230,000 people have fled to neighboring countries.
Burundi has consistently opposed the idea of the AU's planned 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission, saying the deployment of troops without its express permission would be tantamount to an "invasion force".
The AU charter's Article 4(h) gives the pan-African bloc the right to intervene in a fellow nation state "in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity".
But top AU diplomat Ibrahima Fall said Sunday that sending troops without Burundi's approval was "unimaginable," with the bloc deciding to send envoys to hold talks with the government.
"There is no will neither to occupy nor to attack," AU Peace and Security Council chief Smail Chergui added, saying that troops could be sent in the future "if Burundi accepts it".
Clashes between government loyalists and the opposition have become increasingly violent.
"We want dialogue with the government, and the summit decided to dispatch a high level delegation," Chergui told reporters, without giving more details.
Burundian Foreign Minster Alain Aime Nyamitwe told reporters he was "satisfied" at the decision and said Bujumbura was "open to cooperating with the international community, particularly the African Union."
But he also questioned why AU envoys would want to take the time to travel to Bujumbura "since "everyone is aware of the position of Burundi" already.
Chad's President Idriss Deby, speaking after he took over the post of African Union chairman on Saturday, warned colleagues against inaction.
"Our organisation acts as it has for the past 20 or 30 years: we meet often, we talk too much, we always write a lot, but we don't do enough, and sometimes nothing all," Deby said.
Analysts say other African nations are wary of setting a precedent of deploying troops against the government's wishes.
AU leaders spent two days debating the crisis in Burundi -- as well as conflict in South Sudan and Libya -- at the 54-member bloc's summit in Ethiopia.
"It was never the intention of the African Union to deploy a mission to Burundi without the consent of Burundian authorities," Ibrahima Fall, AU Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region, told French radio RFI.
"This is unimaginable," the Senegalese diplomat added.
Nkurunziza's quest to remain in power sparked weeks of street protests that were brutally suppressed, and a failed coup.
The political rhetoric has also become more ethnically-charged, sparking fears the ruling party may be trying to drive a wedge between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking on Saturday as the summit opened, made clear that troops were needed to stem the violence.
"Leaders who stand by while civilians are slaughtered in their name must be held responsible," Ban said, insisting that the Burundi crisis required the "most serious and urgent commitment".
He said the UN backed the AU's proposal "to deploy human rights observers and to establish a prevention and protection mission".
Rwanda hosts the next AU summit, slated for July.
Relations between Rwanda and neighboring Burundi are tense, with Bujumbura accusing Kigali of backing opponents of Nkurunziza, claims Rwanda denies.