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Saving the World’s Largest Tropical Wetland

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Brazil, Pantanal, water lilies. Nat Photos / DigitalVision / Getty Images Plus

Most people have heard of the Amazon, South America's famed rainforest and hub of biological diversity. Less well known, though no less critical, is the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland.

Like the Amazon, the Pantanal is ecologically important and imperiled. Located primarily in Brazil, it also stretches into neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay. Covering an area larger than England at more than 70,000 square miles, the massive wetland provides irreplaceable ecosystem services that include the regulation of floodwaters, nutrient renewal, river flow for navigability, groundwater recharge and carbon sequestration. The wetland also supports the economies of the four South American states it covers.


But as I learned working on a recent research project with the environmental nonprofit WWF, a combination of climate change, new development, expanding agriculture, urban growth and pollution are poised to transform this vast wetland—bringing drastic consequences for the environment, wildlife and millions of people who depend on the Pantanal's natural hydrology.

Pantanal Mineiro formed by the Pandeiros River in Brazil. Eduardo Aigner / WWF-Brasil CC BY 2.0

Ecosystem at Risk

The biggest risk is to the Pantanal's seasonal flood pulse, which maintains the very health of the wetland system. During the wet season from October to March, rainfall in the headwaters of the Pantanal drains down some 1,200 rivers to fill the vast floodplain, which acts as a sponge for all the incoming freshwater. The once-terrestrial landscape becomes a maze of waterways dotted with lush islands that teem with life.

Then the dry season comes, from April to September, and the floodplain acts as a saturated sponge, slowly squeezing out the water it had soaked up in the months before and supplying moisture long after the rains have gone. The result is a dynamic ecosystem that provides ideal habitat for more than 4,700 plant and animal species and sustains the livelihoods of 270 communities. The Pantanal, in fact, hosts the highest concentration of jaguars in the world and is considered one of South America's hotspots for mammal diversity.

The Pantanal remains relatively pristine right now, but projections paint a grim picture for this region's future unless immediate measures are taken. Presently about 12 percent of the wetland, virtually all of which is in private hands, has been deforested. That's better than the neighboring Amazon, but by 2050 scientists predict the Pantanal's vegetation could be devastated by the expansion of agriculture and cattle ranching.

Cattle converge on a watering hole on a ranch in the Pantanal.Kate Gardiner / CC BY-NC 2.0

Climate change adds another threat. Regional temperatures could increase up to seven degrees Celsius by the end of the century, say scientists. The potential consequences of a warmer climate are disastrous: more extreme droughts and floods, the reconfiguration of species distribution, impaired plant function and the Pantanal shrinking in size.

And then there are the dams. The region already has 40 of them, and a whopping 101 additional dams are planned for its headwaters in the Upper Paraguay River Basin. The private sector is financing the construction of most of the dams for the purpose of energy generation, and little is understood about the cumulative impacts of so many hydropower projects on the watershed.

This combination of development, natural habitat conversion and climate change could not only disrupt the ecosystem's natural rhythm but also result in costly and deadly floods for the millions of people living in the downstream countries of the basin, namely Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Forming part of the headwaters of the Rio de la Plata Basin—the second largest watershed in South America and fifth largest in the world—the Pantanal functions as a natural reservoir for the flood waters draining the upper basin.

A Search for Solutions

How do we counteract the cascade of threats and ensure the Pantanal remains a viable ecosystem?

Along with The Nature Conservancy, WWF published a reportin 2012 identifying the risks confronting the Pantanal as a first step toward evaluating the region's vulnerability to climate change.

And there's been some important action in the years following. Since 2015 the governments of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay have been working on a transboundary effort called the Trinational Initiative for the Integrated and Sustainable Development of the Pantanal, which entails sustainably developing and conserving this globally unique wetland. The initiative seeks to reduce pollution, strengthen water governance and expand scientific knowledge on the Pantanal, while protecting the rights of traditional peoples. In doing so the three countries would help protect the regional biodiversity, ecosystem functions and the natural flow of the Paraguay River's tributaries—all of which are vital for ensuring the future resilience of this landscape in the face of climate change.

In a milestone in the progress of the initiative, ministers from all three countries at the 8th World Water Forum in Brazil on March 22, 2018 signed a trinational declaration for the conservation and sustainable development of the Pantanal.

Though the signing is a significant step for conservation, more funding is needed to help enable state governments, local leaders and stakeholders to translate the initiative's policy stipulations into concrete actions. And more support from the international community is required to further strengthen political will and the policy implementation process.

The Pantanal's future may also be further jeopardized by recent politics. The October 2018 election of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who threatened to pull the country out of the Paris climate agreement and roll back national environmental protections, has raised alarm bells in the international environmental community. His political ideology and that of his supporters reflect the line of thinking that natural ecosystems, like the Amazon and the Pantanal, are impediments to development.

Yet Brazil's own Agricultural Research Corporation has estimated the annual value of the Pantanal's ecosystem services at $112 billion.

A hyacinth macaw in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Nori Almeida CC BY 2.0

The loss of the Pantanal could eradicate habitat for myriad species, including jaguars, hyacinth macaw and capybaras, while also changing hydrodynamic patterns in the Rio de la Plata Basin, upsetting the local economies of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, as well as the other countries downstream of the basin.

We know the threats and the consequences of inaction, not only from scientific studies on the Pantanal but from the stories of other major ecosystems threatened or destroyed by lack of protection. The Pantanal is an international litmus test for our environmental values and priorities.

Do we want to witness the destruction of a major ecosystem and home to a diverse community of people? Or do we want the conservation and sustainable development of the Pantanal to become a model for similar future projects around the world?

To most people, the Pantanal is an unknown. That needs to change, and the world needs to step up to conserve it—now.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.