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Researchers Look To Northern Italian Town Untouched By Coronavirus

Coronavirus-free territory in Lombardy, Italy
Coronavirus-free territory in Lombardy, Italy

FERRERA ERBOGNONE — Though Italy's total number of COVID-19 cases has topped 100,000, one town near the epicenter in the Lombardy region has registered zero infections. Now researchers hope to see if this town, with a population of 1,200, holds clues to understanding how the virus spreads?

Ferrera Erbognone, the town that has been completely coronavirus-free, is just 70 kilometers from the first cluster in Codogno, and 52 kilometers from Milan, which has registered more than 8,000 deaths. Ferrera Erbognone is now slated to be part of study conducted by the Mondino Institute of Pavia, to test the blood of local residents to see if there is a physiological explanation for the lack of infections.

Is there something in the immune system of this small population?

The study, which is still awaiting the final "OK" from regional officials, will seek to determine if there are antibodies capable of fighting off the coronavirus that are specifically present in the population of Ferrera Erbognone.

Is there something in the immune system of this small population to explain why no one has been affected? If so, could it be a key to find clues to stopping the pandemic? Mayor Giovanni Fassina doesn't think it's genetics. "We are like everyone else. Our population has been vigilant in respecting the quarantine precautions."

The researchers at Mondino cautioned that they don't expect the study to provide either diagnostic nor prognostic breakthroughs, and cautioned against "generating false myths and unfounded expectations in the population."



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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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