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Ebola outbreak on a 'knife edge,' WHO unsure it can stop spread to urban areas

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: WHO worries whether Congo's Ebola outbreak can be contained; why Democrats would be wise not to run an anti-Trump campaign in the mid-terms; Russia's 2018 World Cup soccer team cleared of doping allegations

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A team from Doctors Without Borders dons protective clothing and equipment as they prepare to treat Ebola patients in an isolation ward of Mbandaka hospital in Congo. The vaccination effort in the region is in its third day. (Louise Annaud/Medecins Sans Frontieres via AP)

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  • Health workers are struggling to contain the Ebola outbreak in DR Congo as some patients turn to spiritual leaders rather than doctors
  • Why Democrats counting on a "Blue Wave" of voter support heading into the U.S. midterm elections would be wise not to simply run an anti-Trump campaign
  • Russia's 2018 World Cup soccer team has been cleared of doping allegations
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Fighting bats, superstition and Ebola

The World Health Organization is warning that West Africa is on the cusp of another Ebola epidemic as the disease continues to expand in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We are on the epidemiological knife edge," Dr. Peter Salama, the organization's emergency response chief, said at a special meeting of WHO member states in Geneva today.

"The next few weeks will really tell if this outbreak is going to expand to urban areas or if we are going to be able to keep it under control."

A health worker prepares a dose of Ebola vaccine for the vaccination campaign in Mbandaka, Congo, that started Monday. (John Bompengo/Associated Press)
News out of Mbandaka, a city of more than 1 million where seven Ebola cases have been diagnosed over the past week, suggests that those efforts are failing. Three infected patients left the isolation ward at the local hospital to seek their own, alternative treatment for the illness in recent days. Two have since died.

"This is a hospital. It's not a prison. We can't lock everything," Yokouide Allarangar, the WHO's representative in Congo, told the Reuters news agency.

The two patients who died had left the hospital on the weekend to attend a "place of prayer."

Agence France Presse yesterday reported that one of the first Ebola deaths in Mbandaka was the pastor of an evangelical church who had been ministering to another victim, trying to cure him of his illness via prayer.

Schoolchildren in Mbandaka wash their hands before going to class on Tuesday, an effort to help contain the Ebola outbreak. (Mark Naftalin/Associated Press)
Area beliefs are, in fact, posing a significant challenge for the international health agencies trying to respond to the outbreak. Some residents are convinced that Ebola is actually a curse that falls on people who eat "stolen meat" — a term locals use to describe wild game. Others say the illness is flat out witchcraft, and therefore cannot be cured by modern medicine.

In response, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDCP) is sending anthropologists into the field along with its 25 epidemiologists to try and support the vaccination efforts.

"If we do not handle communication well, the vaccination program may suffer," John Nkengasong, the organization's head, explained yesterday.

There have been 58 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in the DRC since an outbreak was declared on May 8, from which 27 people have died. Two of the victims were nurses.

Bush meat is displayed at a market in Mbandaka on Tuesday. There is a local belief that Ebola is a curse that afflicts people who eat wild game, and some are refusing medical care, turning instead to preachers and prayers. (Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)
Health workers have drawn up a list of 628 people who they know have come in direct contact with the affected patients, and are tracing three separate transmission chains — one linked to a rural health facility, another to a church, and a third to a funeral. Those people will be given the experimental vaccine developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and now produced by Merck Inc.

The vaccination program began on Monday, and the initial goal is to have 100 people — 70 of them frontline health workers — inoculated by the end of the week. More than 7,500 doses are already in the Congo, and 8,000 more will soon arrive.

But the WHO remains concerned that the disease will spread — not only within the DRC, but to nine neighbouring nations. The borders with the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo are near the epicentre of the outbreak, and area residents travel freely across the frontiers to trade, shop and visit.

"There is constant movement of people through the porous borders," Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional chief for Africa, said today.

Traders offload their wares Tuesday from a fishing boat at the shores of the Congo River. Health officials worry that people travelling to and from the busy region could spread Ebola to other areas. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)
Another possible source of the outbreak — bats, a known carrier of the disease — are all-but-impossible to control. However, three researchers at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania have come up with a way to predict how the flying animals might be spreading Ebola.

Their zoonotic model, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, traces the migratory patterns of bats using satellite data and factors in the environment, like weather and the availability of food and shelter, to predict where and when the outbreak might spread.

When they applied their model to the 2014 outbreak which killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, they found a connection between its spread and bat migrations, with the peak in Ebola infections coinciding with the bat birthing season.

The hope is that the tool might soon help health authorities focus on specific locations and times of the year when the danger of an Ebola outbreak is the greatest.

Riding America's Blue Wave

CBC's Keith Boag looks at why Democrats counting on a "Blue Wave" of voter support heading into the U.S. midterm elections would be wise not to simply run an anti-Trump campaign:

It can be  a struggle to report on things that exist only as concepts or impressions. That was our challenge in trying to illustrate the energy and passion behind the metaphorical U.S. "Blue Wave" that has produced a string of Democratic victories in special elections.

It's come vividly to life in marches across the country, but where to find it otherwise?

That's what led us to a live edition of Pod Save America in Dallas, Texas.

Jon Favreau of Pod Save America speaks in Oslo on Jan. 9. The show sells out concert halls all over America and even in Europe. (Vidar Ruud via Reuters)
Pod Save America is the only purely partisan political show to make the top 20 podcasts in the United States. It's just a collection of former Obama White House staffers talking about the latest political news and encouraging activism, but it sells out concert halls all over America and even in Europe — and will soon break into television with four specials on HBO.

It wouldn't exist without opposition to Trump, so to be at a Pod Save America show is, in a way,  to be inside the Blue Wave that seems to be rolling toward the midterm elections in November.

The counterintuitive corollary for Democrats, though, is that while Trump is the force that's bringing them together, running explicitly against him in the coming midterms is probably not an effective tactic.

A live Pod Save America show in Dallas on March 12, 2018. It's the only purely partisan political show to make the top 20 podcasts in the U.S. (Jason Burles/CBC)
Some Democrats are finding it more effective to run against the topsy-turviness of the Trump presidency that can be so exhausting even to his supporters.

To unpack that idea we looked back at the peculiar race for a Senate seat in Alabama last December. The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats won this seat because the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was accused of child molesting just a few weeks before the vote, and therefore it was sui generis and had no broader political lesson to offer.

Supporters of Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore watch for results at an election night party in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 12, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
But there are problems with that analysis.

For one thing, most Republicans didn't believe the allegations made against Moore, and some might even have been more inclined to come to his defence at the ballot box as a result.

The truth about the Alabama race is that it showed Democrats why running against Trump might be risky in an era of highly tribal politics, as well as what an alternative strategy could be. That's the focus of our online feature today.

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Just say 'nyet'

Russia's 2018 World Cup soccer team has been cleared of doping allegations after an investigation found "insufficient evidence" of organized cheating.

In a statement released yesterday — just three weeks before the tournament's June 14 kickoff in Moscow — the sport's organizing body, FIFA, said that it has completed all of its probes into the 28 players and seven reserves named to the host country's provisional squad, and is unable to "assert an anti-doping rule violation."

Russian national team coach Stanislav Cherchesov gestures as he speaks with players during training in Neustift, Austria, on Tuesday. Russia's 2018 World Cup soccer team has been cleared of doping allegations. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
Two 2016 reports prepared for the World Anti-Doping Agency by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren had documented a state-sponsored cheating program across multiple sports in Russia in the run-up to the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 OIympics. Thirty-four soccer players — including several members of Russia's 2014 World Cup squad — were identified among the hundreds of athletes believed to have taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping lab, had told International Olympic Committee investigators that he oversaw the destruction of around 8,000 "dirty" doping samples in December 2014 in order to "evade" WADA controls.

He said in a recent interview with the Associated Press that Vitaly Mutko, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister and head of the 2018 World Cup organizing committee, had specifically instructed him to make the country's soccer players "immune from doping controls and sanctions."

This June 2007 file photo shows Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory in Moscow. (EPA/Reuters)
Mutko, who was banned from the Olympics for life in December, officially stepped away from his World Cup role, and job as head of the Russian soccer federation, in February.

FIFA says that it consulted with both McLaren and Rodchenkov in its investigation, and reanalyzed the remaining samples from the Moscow laboratory — as well as examining a database of all Russian tests between January 2012 and August 2015 — but could find no evidence of prohibited substances or tampering.

It also stepped up its unannounced testing of Russian players, again failing to find any violation.

The soccer body says that WADA agrees with its decision to close the doping investigations.

Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko speaks prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw at the Kremlin on December 1, 2017. Mutko stepped away from his World Cup role, and job as head of the Russian soccer federation, in February. (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Neither FIFA, nor WADA, have identified the players who were under investigation, but Mutko disclosed two of the names — defenders Ivan Knyazev and Ruslan Kambolov — to the press last winter. The 28-year-old Kambolov was dropped from the World Cup roster last week after he reportedly injured his calf.

The clean bill for Russia came on the same day that the captains of three Group C World Cup teams, France, Australia and Denmark, released an open letter to FIFA urging that their Peruvian counterpart Paolo Guerrero be forgiven for a failed test and allowed to compete in the tournament.

Guerrero was handed a 12-month ban last December after a positive result for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine. He says it was a result of having consumed a cup of tea infused with coca leaves, for which the Court of Arbitration for Sport concluded the 34-year-old must bear "some fault or negligence."

Defender Ruslan Kambolov, right, was dropped from the Russian team's World Cup roster last week after he reportedly injured his calf. (Epsilon/Getty Images)
Speaking of blame, the cringiest element of the World Cup is set to be revealed this Friday, with the official release of this year's theme song — a collaboration between Will Smith, Reggaeton singer Nicky Jam, Kosovar pop star Era Istrefi and producer/DJ Diplo.

The as-yet-untitled song will be the first new music from the 49-year-old movie star in more than a decade.

It's not clear if the Fresh Prince of Bel Air ever aired in Russia, but here's a Polish version of its theme.

Quote of the moment

"The notion that I'm just out of there seems really unreasonable."

- Michael Rotondo speaks to reporters yesterday following an eviction hearing in Syracuse, N.Y. The 30-year-old's parents were seeking an order to force him to leave their split-level ranch home after he failed to heed five written notices — and several offers of financial assistance — asking him to find his own place.  

Michael Rotondo, left, in court during an eviction proceeding Tuesday in Syracuse, N.Y. The action was brought by his parents, Mark and Christina, who are seen conferring with their lawyer in the background. (Douglass Dowty/The Syracuse Newspapers via AP)

What The National is reading

  • Syria scoffs at U.S. demand to send Iranian forces home (CBC)
  • Germ-free childhood could trigger leukemia, scientist suggests (CNN)
  • Oil hits four-year high; OPEC threatens to increase supply (CBC)
  • At least nine dead in India as police fire on copper smelter protesters (Reuters)
  • McDonald's sues B.C. government over Happy Meal toy tax (CBC)
  • Rwanda becomes an Arsenal sponsor (Africanews)
  • Hold it: Manitoba mulls roadside rest stop closures (CTV)
  • 8 years ago somebody bought 2 pizzas with bitcoins now worth $82 million (Quartz)

Today in history

May 23, 1969: High-rise bicycles get kids riding in 1969

Parents just don't understand, man. These kooky kids and their "high-rise" bicycles with the banana seats, knobby tires and "sissy" bars on the back. CCM gets it, however, churning out multiple models in their suburban Toronto factory and capitalizing on the craze with retail prices of up to $90. How do you feel when you ride one? "Sort of, like, dangerous," says one owner. Which is good, because you looked ridiculous.

With sissy bars and banana saddles, a new bike style from Canadian manufacturer CCM proves popular with kids. 2:53

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.