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Paws and hands in harmony



With incidents of animals being tested positive for COVID-19 both locally and in various parts of the world, there is a discourse and public anxiety about potential animal to human and human to animal transmission of the virus. We spoke to several authorities committed to animal welfare and virology to find answers and to dispel unnecessary fears.

by Randima Attygalle

The 14-year-old African Lion, ‘Thor’ of the Dehiwala Zoo, gifted by a zoo in Seoul, was reported to be having severe respiratory signs including breathing difficulties and a nasal discharge. Its loss of appetite and lethargy further worried keepers. On an official request made by the Director (Animal Health and Nutrition), Department of National Zoological Gardens, Department of Medical Microbiology of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya tested the nasal swab specimens of the sick lion for COVID-19. Fecal samples of the infected animal were sent to the Molecular and Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory (MNBL) at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, University of Peradeniya. Both laboratories confirmed the lion to be COVID-19 positive. This is the first known case of an animal contracting COVID-19 here at home.

The lion was confirmed COVID-19 positive according to the criteria of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), Prof. N.P Sunil-Chandra, Virologist and Chair of Medical Microbiology from the Faulty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya told the Sunday Island. “The nature of a specimen, whether it is human, animal or of environmental origin, is not going to alter the result. Hence COVID-19 PCR procedure adopted for the respiratory samples of the infected lion was the same as that which is used for human samples,” he said.

While veterinarians and other staff of the Dehiwala Zoo have been tested, further investigations, assisted by zoo authorities, are being carried out to identify the exact source of infection in the lion. Asymptomatic human infection is a very likely source for the infection in the lion, he said.

“Asymptomatic human infection was incriminated as the source infection in the case of a COVID infected four-year-old Malaysian tiger in the Bronx Zoo, USA which was reported in March last year. Infected pet cats have also been reported in Belgium, Hong Kong, USA and Brazil but there is not enough evidence to change the current opinion of the OIE that neither cats nor dogs appear to be able to pass the virus to people,” the senior professor said.

SARS CoV-2 infections in minks in the Netherlands and in Denmark have been reported in close proximity to a region with high incidence of COVID-19 in humans. A mutation of the SARS CoV-2 virus in a mink in Denmark and one of the variant was found in several people, he explained.

In 1918 the world experienced its worst flu outbreak (commonly called the Spanish flu) due to an influenza virus type A strain H1N1 which emerged in birds infected a third of the world’s human population killing over 50 million people. Three more influenza pandemics followed: in 1957 ‘Asian’ flu (A-H2N2), in 1968 ‘Hong Kong’ flu (A-H3N2) and the 2009 ‘swine’ flu (A-H1N1). “Although milder than the 1918 pandemic, these highlight the constant threat of es to human health.

Emergence of SARS CoV-2 virus in 2019 which led to the current COVID-19 global pandemic further highlights the threat of emerging zoonotic virus infections,” observed Prof Sunil-Chandra. He elaborated on the importance of working on ‘One Health’ concept (the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally and globally, to attain optimal health for people, animals and the environment) when confronted with emerging zoonotic infections such as COVID-19.

“Climate changes and deforestation affect animal reservoirs of viruses and due these adverse effects animal migration leads to increased interactions in the animal-human interface. This could spread viruses to new locations and across a wider range of domestic and wildlife species including birds and bats.”

‘Spillover events’ from wildlife via vectors or domestic animals are the starting points for many outbreaks, from influenza to HIV and from SARS to COVID-19, pointed out the Virologist. “Therefore, it is natural to have misconceptions among people with pandemic stress about how new diseases jump from animals to human. Although it is theoretically possible that the virus can be transmitted from an infected animal to human, todate there is no evidence for SARS CoV-2 transmission from animals to humans. Mink is the only animal known to have passed the coronavirus to humans, except for the initial spillover event from an unknown species in China.”

According to the OIE, there is no evidence that cats or dogs spread the disease to humans bit it recommends that sick persons with COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets, including petting, cuddling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food, in order to protect their pets during the time of their illness.

Gorillas and chimpanzees are identified as animals that are at very high COVID-19 risk, pointed out Prof. Ashoka Dangolla, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Clinical Studies from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, (FVMAS) University of Peradeniya. Felines such as domestic cats, tigers and lions are at a medium risk he said. “Veterinarians are very familiar with other animal Coronavirus infections in cats. This has been so for several decades. Feline infectious peritonitis is one such condition with respiratory signs in cats. But we must keep in mind that COVID-19 is a novel Coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) which has the ability to mutate into new variants. Therefore, all possible precautions must be taken while extending love and compassion to our pets.”

Since it is known that cat family members can contract the disease from symptomatic and asymptomatic parties, it is advisable to keep away from them if you are COVID-19 positive or suspected of it, Prof. Dangolla advises. “Cats cannot, according to available information, infect humans. But if you do find your cat having respiratory symptoms, it’s always advisable to take the cat to a vet in the area.”

Care should also be taken not to feed monkeys and to dispose of our waste in an irresponsible manner, the senior veterinarian warns. Dogs are of low risk for developing COVID-19. “So far, COVID- 19 positive dogs have not been reported in Sri Lanka though we test all dogs that are being brought into the country for COVID-19. If a household dog shows respiratory signs such as difficulty in breathing, best advice is to show it to a vet.”

Susceptibility of dogs, pigs and elephants to COVID-19 is low whilst ferrets, mink, mice and rats have very low susceptibility, says the veterinarian. Birds have never been reported to be COVID positive. COVID positive Asian elephants have been documented in India, therefore it is advisable not to go near captive elephants if a person is COVID positive or asymptomatic he notes. “If an infected (symptomatic or asymptomatic) person gets close to a healthy elephant, closer than two meters, the elephant may get infected, but there is no report to say that elephants infect people. Sheep, cattle and even dolphins can get infected but they are at medium risk.”

Since our local vets have been working with Coronavirus and the Sri Lanka Veterinary Research Institute has been producing several vaccines against viruses in animals, we can have some hope that the vets would produce a vaccine against COVID in animals if a need arises, says Prof Dangolla.

The Molecular and Nutritional Biochemistry laboratory of FVMAS, University of Peradeniya conducts tests to detect COVID-19 and the presence of SARS-like viruses in animals. Since September, 2020, the lab had been offering services to the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH) to screen hundreds of animals for COVID-19 infection that came into the country. These came as pets through the Animal Quarantine Department at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) which operates under DAPH said Dr. Dilan Satharasinghe, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Basic Veterinary Sciences, FVMAS, University of Peradeniya.

“We have also screened mangroves and toque monkeys as a part of a surveillance programme implemented via DAPH in collaboration with the Wildlife Department and it is an ongoing process,” he said. DAPH and Animal Quarantine Division at the BIA screen all animals coming into the country for COVID-19 infection. Samples are referred to the Molecular and Nutritional Biochemistry laboratory and upon the confirmation of negative results, animals are released to the owners.

The Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH) implements disease control programmes mainly through Directorates of Animal Health and Veterinary Research. The DAPH has strong structure throughout the country with 26 Regional Veterinary Investigating Centres (RVICs), one located in each district. The disease control programmes are implemented by its islandwide network of 337 Government Veterinary Offices (GVOs) which come under nine Provincial Departments of Animal Production and Health (PDAPH). The central Veterinary Investigating Centres and the technical divisions of Veterinary Research Institute (VRI) provide referral diagnostic facilities for Regional VICs and GVOs in managing diseases.

Curative and Preventive measures are carried out by the DAPH and PDAPH. Disease investigations, epidemiological studies, surveillance programmes and vaccination programmes are being carried out in managing viral diseases.

Animal Disease Act No.59 of 1992 stipulates that no person can import any animal or animal related product without the permission of the Director General of Animal Production and Health. “This provision is to prevent the entry of any exotic disease to the country. Accordingly, animals, animal products, veterinary products and biological imports are controlled by the DAPH by issuing pre- clearance approval for such imports,” said the Director General of Animal Production and Health, Dr. Hemali Kothalawala.

Quarantine stations are established in ports of entry such as Katunayake, Colombo, Mattala and Jaffna to control imports through air and sea passage. Animal entry is permitted based on negative test certificates of certain given diseases and in high-risk situations animals are being quarantined for a number of days at the quarantine stations or on-farm, explained Dr. Kothalawala. “Apart from these routine protocols, today a COVID-negative certificate is mandatory when importing any animal to the country.”

The Animal Disease Act also requires the Director General of Animal Production and Health to take action to control animal disease spread in the country. Today DAPH has established a diagnostic facility with animal specific RT-PCR antigen kits and an Epidemiological Survey is planned to uncover the factors associated with the COVID-19.

The Veterinary Research Institute (VRI), of DAPH has a long history of vaccine production in Sri Lanka. VRI produces several viral vaccines and bacterial vaccines for the livestock sector in the country. Among the viral vaccines, the most important as Dr. Kothalawala explained, is the one for Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) which causes severe milk production drop in cows when infected. The vaccine which was first produced locally in 1964 is now developed using the latest technology to enhance the immune duration and its shelf life. “Presently, 50% of the country’s requirement is produced within the country. Recently approved project on FMD control is planning to expand the capacity by two-fold by end of the next year,” Dr. Kothalawala said.

A viral vaccine for goat Contagious Pustular Dermatitis (CPD) which causes severe production loss and kid mortality is also being produced at the VRI. It also produces a live viral vaccine for New Castle Disease which causes a very high death rate among chicken. While a newly invented vaccine with oil adjutant to give lifelong immunity in birds is ready to release for the industry another vaccine is being produced by VRI as well as Veterinary Investigation Centres for warts in cattle, she noted. Several bacterial vaccines are also being produced at the VRI for deadly diseases in cattle and poultry. A vaccine for tick fever which causes severe economic losses in milk production especially in high producing animals such as cattle and buffalo is also being produced at the VRI.

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Life style

Hoop Earrings your everyday style



When it came to jewellery, 2023 saw a rise in Y2K-inspired designs like we saw in apparels as well. There was an influx of bold colours, playful designs and patterns that elicited a general sense of happiness in the wearer. Loops the simple, round earrings that have hung from women’s lobes since times immemorial has now necome a fashion statement, Bet this time, they are injected with a lot more character. Hoops have also evolved from being simple malleable metal shaped as rings to becoming pieces of jewellery that have a certain main character They are glamorous and stylish and add character to the wearer are Versatile and chic. it is a must have for any women’s wardrobe. Regardless of size, metal, and material, hoop earrings never fail to make one feel more put together.

Hoop earring proponent and jeweller Jennifer Fisher, says this is one jewellery piece that makes you standout among the rest

Fisher, whose name has become synonymous with hoop earrings, has everyone from Jennifer Lopez to CNN Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins wearing her styles daily. With hoops still the dominating earring style, we caught up with her again (hot on the heels of her Beverly Hills store opening) to talk about starting and growing a hoop earring collection. “Your first pair of hoops should be something clean that you can wear morning, noon, and night,” says Fisher. “Your fifth pair of hoops should be something that has texture and maybe a larger diameter. Something that rounds out your collection.”

“I always say that hoop earrings are like the perfect pair of jeans; you need a few styles to round out your collection,” continues Fisher. “Your foundation is normally something pretty classic and then as you grow your collection, your selection should become more diverse. A great example: for your first pair of jeans, you probably aren’t going to buy a wide-leg, long version. You’re probably going to go with a classic straight-leg version, so I suggest the same idea when you’re buying hoops.”

And—to keep Fisher’s analogy going— just like denim, the hoop is versatile. It can be the most casual earring or a minimal accent for an evening outfit.

Medium Hoops

Bigger than a huggie (meaning a hoop that “hugs” the ear) and smaller than a look-at-me-hoop, the medium hoop is an essential for every collection. It’s a classic pairing for pretty much every outfit under the sun.

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The story of the Ceylon spice: harvesting ‘true cinnamon’



By Zinara Rathnayake

It is 9am in the Carlton estate in Thihagoda, a small town about 160km (100 miles) south of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, and the July sun hides behind inky clouds. The air is thick and hot. Two men walk to the main estate building carrying piles of cinnamon branches. Inside, a group of women sit on the cement floor, chatting as they peel cinnamon.

Since 2000, workers here have planted, harvested and peeled cinnamon, sending batches of the fragrant sticks to a factory in Kamburupitiya, a 15-minute drive away, where they are cut, packed and loaded onto shipping containers for export.

Cinnamon harvesting usually takes place from June to December when the monsoon skies burst into downpours. But here at Rathna Producers Cinnamon Exports, it is produced throughout the year on the 42-acre (17 hectares) estate. “When we are done harvesting one acre, the next acre is ready,” says Chamara Lakshith, 28, the estate’s visiting officer, whose job involves coordinating between the estate and the main office in Kamburupitiya. “But sometimes for a few weeks, the bark is so hard that you can’t peel cinnamon. We know it by looking at the trees; young leaves turn striking red.”

The family business that began in 1985 is run by Ravindu Runage, whose late father started in the cinnamon trade with 7,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($35) to buy cinnamon from small farmers and sell it to bigger traders.

Now, Runage says the company is one of the largest cinnamon producers in Sri Lanka, exporting cinnamon and other spices like nutmeg and black pepper to 56 countries. Apart from growing organic cinnamon, the company also sources it from 8,000 individual and small-scale farmers and exports more than 30 containers of cinnamon a month.

“We grew up with cinnamon,” says 36-year-old Runage, at his office in Kamburupitiya, surrounded by several industry awards his family has won over the years. “We lived in a two-bedroom house. We slept in one room. In the other room, my thaththa [father] stored cinnamon.”

Once they were in the business, the Runage family learned that Mexico is one of the biggest cinnamon consumers. “So thaththa learned English and visited Mexico in 1998 to find a buyer,” says Runage. “But they spoke Spanish. So thaththa sent his business cards to companies he found in a telephone book.”

“Five months later, we sold our first container of cinnamon to Mexico.”

The world’s best cinnamon

There are two types of cinnamon in the Western market: Ceylon cinnamon (named after the title British colonisers gave to Sri Lanka) and cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka; it has a lush, inviting scent and a sweet taste, and its quills are soft and light brown in colour. Cassia comes from other Asian countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam; its bark is sturdy with a rough texture, it is dark brown in colour and is stronger and hotter in taste. Cassia is considered lower quality, while Ceylon often triumphs as the pure, “true cinnamon”.

The process of producing this cinnamon includes several laborious, time-consuming steps. This is also why Ceylon cinnamon is expensive in the market while cassia is cheap, Runage says.

At the estate, seeds are planted in grow bags. After one year, saplings are cultivated. Harvesting begins four years later.

Ravindu Runage’s late father started Rathna Producers Cinnamon Exports in 1985; they have now won several industry awards

For harvesting, farmers cut down the branches of cinnamon trees at an angle, which allows cinnamon bushes to regrow, Lakshith says. Young and tender twigs are thrown away. Once branches are soaked in water and are moist enough, peelers remove the outermost layer of the cinnamon bark. To produce thin cinnamon quills, they spend hours stripping off the inner bark of the cinnamon branch in sheets.

Once produced, Ceylon cinnamon quills are graded based on their width; the thinner the quills, the higher they are in value. Alba is the highest form of cinnamon, with a diameter of 6mm. H1 is a lower grade of cinnamon, with a diameter of 22mm. In the export market, Alba costs twice as much as H1.

A generational craft

With a hearty smile, Suduhakuru Piyathilake holds a large batch of cinnamon quills. Piyathilake and his wife have been living in an old, dilapidated house next to the estate’s main building for 10 years now.

At 5am every day, Piyathilake heads off to the plantation. After collecting branches from about 15 trees, he plods back to the water tank in the main building, drops them off for soaking and returns to the plantation. He must make several trips back and forth before he begins peeling.

“When it’s moist, it’s easy to peel,” says the 55-year-old. “That’s why we cut them early in the morning and soak them.”

When the clock hits 10am, Piyathilake comes back with the last batch. After five hours, he has collected the branches of 200 trees. Sweat trickles down his forehead. A resident kitten swats at his feet, but Piyathilake ignores it and rushes in for a shower.

After a two-hour break, he sharpens his knife by scraping the outer bark of the branch and then he gets to work. “This is what my father and his father did,” he says. “Now my sons are cinnamon peelers.”

Piyathilake has been peeling cinnamon for the last 43 years. He learned the craft from his father in their village in Elpitiya, 70km north of the Runage family estate, where his children live with his mother. At home, cinnamon trees adorn their back yard, Piyathilake says. “But it’s a small garden so we can’t harvest cinnamon every day of the year. We don’t make much money there. So I work here with my wife. We only see our children once in every four months.”

Piyathilake is so adept at work that he can masterfully strip off extremely thin barks of the cinnamon branch by merely measuring them next to his index finger. After peeling the outer bark, he makes two cuts on two opposite sides before peeling off the inner bark. A half a length cut of your smallest bone is for Alba, Piyathilake says. For “rough” or H1 cinnamon quills, Piyathilake uses the length of two bones of his index finger.

However, even for experienced generational peelers like Piyathilake, making extremely thin Alba cinnamon is profitless. By 10pm – when he sets off to sleep – Piyathilake can have peeled about 5kg of lower grade cinnamon, earning about 2,500 rupees ($12.50) per kilogramme. “But I will only make just one kilo of Alba for the whole day,” he says. “Alba is smaller and lightweight so you need to make more quills to make up a kilo – that earns me only 4,300 rupees [$21.50].”

When Piyathilake removes the inner bark, it curls up within a few minutes under the shade. These barks are then stuffed with small cuttings of the bark called quillings to make one 42-inch (1 metre) quill. Quills are placed on ropes under the roof for drying. After three days, peelers pack them into bales and send them off to the factory.

For Piyathilake and his family, cinnamon is their bread and butter, but it is also much more than that. “It’s a craft you have to master for years. I started peeling cinnamon when I was 12. It took me several years to strip off thin layers of the inner bark without damaging it,” he says.

Skills shortage

For producers like Runage, however, it is not always easy to find skilled labour. At the Carlton estate, Piyathilake is one of their last experienced peelers. Runage feels that finding generational peelers is one of the biggest challenges in the business today.

“Peeling cinnamon requires hard labour, so the younger generations don’t want to do it any more. They prefer office jobs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these office jobs will pay you more than peeling cinnamon, but an office job has a better social image today,” says Runage. “People consider peeling cinnamon as a low-level job, so it’s difficult for us to find experienced peelers now.”

Back at the estate’s main building, grey-haired Heenipellage Chandra sits on a floor mat, her eyes focused on the cinnamon bark she peels. For 10 years, the 62-year-old has walked to the estate daily to peel at least 3kg of cinnamon. Chandra recalls Runage’s father visiting her house in the late 1980s. “He came to meet my father-in-law and buy cinnamon from him.”

Chandra has been peeling cinnamon at home since she was married. “Somewhere in the late 1970s,” she says, trying to recall her wedding day, “Husband’s father and his father, all of them peeled cinnamon.”

But Chandra’s children do not peel cinnamon any more. Both her 20-something sons do office jobs, says Chandra as her eyes twinkle with a smile. She is proud of her sons. They have climbed the social ladder.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, most resident cinnamon peelers left for their homes during the months-long lockdowns. Runage had to shuffle his staff around to find labour; women from the factory were relocated to the estate to peel cinnamon.


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India child marriage arrests leave families without breadwinner



Crackdown leaves poor families in Assam state without main breadwinner as campaigners say arrests are the wrong way to tackle
the issue

Aged 15 and already pregnant after marrying last year, Pinku Das Sarkar has no idea what to do following her husband’s February 2 arrest in a controversial police crackdown on child marriage in northeastern India.

He is among more than 3,000 men, priests and Muslim leaders who have been jailed over the last month in the state of Assam on charges of violating the country’s widely flouted laws against early marriage.

“It was 11pm and we were about to sleep when four policemen came and whisked him away. I didn’t know what was happening. I just cried all night,” Sarkar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she sat outside her brick and bamboo house in Radhanagar, a village in Assam’s Nagaon district.

“I really don’t know what to do,” said Sarkar, who relied on the small income her 26-year-old husband made by selling sugarcane juice from a cart.

Marriage under 18 is illegal in India, though almost a quarter of married Indian women wed before their 18th birthday, health data collected between 2019 and 2021 shows.But huge progress has been made to turn the tide on child marriage in recent years.

As recently as 2005-06, 47 percent of women got married before 18, and women’s rights campaigners say better educational access among girls and awareness campaigns in communities where the practice is culturally accepted brought down numbers.

Police action to tackle the issue is rare, however. Less than 2,000 people were arrested across India for arranging or participating in child marriage in 2021, the latest official crime data shows.

The Assam crackdown has been condemned by women’s and anti-poverty campaigners who say it unfairly punishes poor families who marry off their daughters due to financial pressures, and leaves thousands of families without their main breadwinner.

“Criminalising those who are already poor is not the best way to deal with a social problem,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a nonprofit.

“These young pregnant girls are left without any help, with their main support gone,” she said.

Presenting a petition to the Gauhati High Court in the state’s main city, dozens of campaigners called instead for improving girls’ access to education and information on sexual and reproductive health to help prevent child marriages.

Uncertain future

A few miles from Sarkar’s home, Gulsona Begum said her security guard husband was imprisoned on February 7 just two weeks after they married, saying his arrest had left the family penniless and facing an uncertain future.

“My father-in-law is physically handicapped and we have no source of income now with my husband in jail,” Begum said at her house in the village of Amlipukhuri.

She said she was 18, but police say she is still a minor and has no documents to prove her age.

“Now that he has been arrested, he will most probably lose his job,” she said. “We are managing to eat for now with the help of our neighbours and relatives … but I don’t know what will happen to us.”

Fearing arrest, several men have fled to neighbouring states, leaving their teenage wives at home, village residents said.Defending the state’s approach, Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters that no cases of child marriage had been reported since the police operation began.

He said that of the 3,047 people arrested so far, about 251 have been granted bail.There have also been questions about whether the crackdown targeted Assam’s Muslim community, which accounts for about a third of its 34 million people.

Most of the arrests took place in districts with a large Muslim population, said human rights lawyer Taniya Sultana Laskar.

Sarma, a prominent figure in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, has said action was being taken against people, irrespective of their faith.

He has cited the state’s maternal mortality rate of 32 percent among girls married before 18, which is higher than the country’s average of 23.3 percent, government health data shows.

Mutual support?

Back in Radhanagar village, Sarkar’s father-in-law said his son’s arrest had forced him to question his decision to encourage the marriage, thinking it would be mutual support for the two families.

“Pinku’s mother is a domestic help and … lost her husband young. We had no woman in the house after my wife died. So it was a solution for both our families’ problems as I saw it,” he said.

“I understand child marriage is wrong and I feel helpless now when I see Pinku sad all day. I don’t even get work easily at my age. I worry what will happen when the child comes,” he said.

For now, a couple of neighbours have stepped in to help, taking her to hospital for a scheduled pregnancy check-up.

But she said she misses her husband. “His presence gave me support. He is my strength,” she said.

– Al Jazeera

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