File photo of Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and tracer flares lighting up the sky above downtown Baghdad Jan. 17, 1991, as U.S....

5 overlooked stories that deserve your attention

“Where’s the fire?”

President Donald Trump made this quip Monday as he hopped into a fire truck parked outside the White House during an event to kick off the president’s “Made in America Week,” showcasing products from all 50 states.

“Put it out fast,” he said, as Vice President Mike Pence looked on.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits on a firefighter truck as he attends a "Made in America" products showcase event at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX3BUAI

U.S. President Donald Trump sits on a firefighter truck as he attends a “Made in America” products showcase event at the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

The scene played out like an all-too-easy metaphor for an administration that continues to face a multitude of questions about its relationship with Russia and its role in health care reform, as another version of a Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare failed to earn enough support from the Senate.

As lawmakers try to stomp out the blazes, here are five stories outside the Beltway you may have missed.

1. Veterans Affairs’ deep-seated struggle to handle cases of Gulf War Illness

The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center is pictured in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Samantha Sais/Reuters

The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center is pictured in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Samantha Sais/Reuters

The Department of Veterans Affairs approves just 17 percent of disability claims for Gulf War veterans, a rate three times lower than other types of claims, according to a report released last week.

A Government Accountability Office report said from 2010 to 2015, the VA approved 18,000 out of more than 100,000 claims for disability benefits for veterans who suffer from Gulf War Illness (GWI), a catch-all term for the host of chronic conditions that stem from being exposed to certain materials — such as burn pits and biological weapons that released chemical toxins into the environment — during deployment in the early 1990s.

About 44 percent of the million military members who served during the war have reported medical problems associated with GWI, the report says. It also noted the VA has seen a substantial increase in the number of claims filed for GWI: it processed 11,400 claims in fiscal year 2015, more than double the number five years ago.

The report also found that veterans seeking compensation for GWI waited an average of four months longer to get a decision from the VA than those filing other types of claims, and often, it wasn’t clear why the claim was denied.

The low rate of approval is also attributed to apparent confusion among VA staff and the broader system on how to process these claims. The GAO, after interviewing VA staff, said there was “inadequate training,” adding that 90 percent of medical examiners hadn’t completed the VA’s related 90-minute online training course. The course, which was introduced in 2015, is optional.

GWI symptoms range from fatigue, headaches and insomnia to respiratory disorders and memory loss, according to the VA’s website. But the VA does not have a single definition for the illness, something the GAO criticized in its report.

A file photo dated February 26, 1991 of a U.S. soldier standing night guard as oil wells burn in the distance in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border on the last night of the Gulf War. Photo by Reuters

A file photo dated February 26, 1991 of a U.S. soldier standing night guard as oil wells burn in the distance in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border on the last night of the Gulf War. Photo by Reuters

VA Deputy Chief of Staff Gina Farrisee responded to the report by saying the VA would make training mandatory for medical examiners. A VA spokesperson confirmed for the NewsHour that the target date for examiners to complete the program is October of this year.

In a letter included with the GAO report, Farrisee agreed the agency needed to develop a standardized definition of the illness, and also offer more clarity about why specific claims were being denied.

Why it’s important

The VA has now poured more than $160 million into medical research about GWI since the mid-1990s. Yet in nearly 27 years, a standardized description of the illness has not been defined. The reason, the agency says, is there’s still unresolved questions about symptoms and their effects on the health of U.S. service members.

“Without a documented plan to establish a single case definition, VA may miss opportunities to focus its efforts and advance knowledge about Gulf War Illness, and potentially improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of affected veterans,” the report said.

Ron Brown, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, which helps veterans with GWI claims, told Stars and Stripes he was “extremely disappointed” with the findings.

“These are the same issues the National Gulf War Resource Center has been trying to bring to the VA’s attention for three years now. I’m left scratching my head on what we’ve accomplished. We’ve had 26 years to get this right, and we’re not even close. These vets are struggling,” he said.

The VA will spend the next two years to study whether the health problems of veterans who served in the Gulf War, as well as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been passed down to their children or grandchildren, KPCC reported last week. The results of this one-of-a-kind study are expected in 2019.

2. Yemen’s Cholera outbreak continues

A severe cholera outbreak is underway in Yemen, with more than 300,000 infections and more than 1,700 reported deaths reported in recent months.

Cholera, a deadly bacterial infection spread through water that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, first emerged in the country October 2016. At the time, there were 25,000 cases, a UNICEF spokeswoman in Yemen told Devex.

The number of Cholera cases began to intensify in April, the World Health Organization said, when the total reached 200,000.

Now, Cholera has spread to 21 of the country’s 22 provinces, The Los Angeles Times reported. Humanitarian groups estimate 5,000 new cases of the disease per day. About 50 percent of those affected are children. Humanitarian efforts have encountered security and political obstacles when attempting to deliver aid.

Yemen is a country still seeped in war between pro-government forces and Shi’ite Muslim Houthi rebels. The outbreak is a direct “consequence of two years of heavy conflict,” WHO reported, along with deteriorating health, water and sanitation systems.

“The main challenge remains identifying and reaching the areas and the people where the cholera outbreak has not yet fully emerged,” wrote Fadela Chaib, a spokeswoman for WHO, in an email to The LA Times, since “vaccinating during an ongoing outbreak is not advised.”

Yemen’s Ministry of Health and WHO are focusing on water sanitation to fight the disease.

Why it’s important

In a typical cholera outbreak, only 20 percent of cases are considered severe, Madhok told Devex. In Yemen, 40 percent of cases have been classified this way.

Pair this with Yemen’s ongoing conflict — which began about three years ago, when Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sana — and nearly 19 million of its 27 million citizens are in need of some form of humanitarian aid, a Red Cross spokeswoman told The LA Times. Airstrikes intended to drive the rebels out have killed more than 8,000 people and displaced 3 million, according to the United Nations.

Aid groups such as MSF International and UNICEF have said treating this outbreak has proved particularly challenging due to lackluster long term treatment for infected communities.

Another recent outbreak in the United Republic of Tanzania, where a total of more than 24,000 cases were reported, killed 378 people last year.

UNICEF, MSF and others are distributing family kits filled with supplies for combating the disease, such as chlorine tablets, jerry canse and accessible instructions on how to avoid infection, Devex reported.

To continue to combat the outbreak, WHO has established emergency treatment program stations across Yemen, in an attempt to take control of new cases and halt the volatile spread of the disease, news outlet MySalaam reported.

3. Michigan politician stands by his call to kill all Muslims

A village president in rural Michigan called for the death of all Muslims on Facebook and has refused to apologize. Now, some villagers are trying to recall his election.

Jeff Sieting is president of Kalkaska, Michigan, whose roughly 2,000 residents are almost entirely white. On his Facebook profile, Sieting describes himself as “a White Christian Conservative American that strongly believes in the Constitution as it was written.”

On November 30, 2016, Sieting wrote “kill every last muslim (sic),” destroy their belongings and home and then “salt the ground heavily,” according to a screenshot that the Traverse City Record-Eagle in Michigan captured during its reporting.

He refused to apologize and says the First Amendment protects his right to post such messages on Facebook, the Detroit Free Press reported. A longer scroll through Sieting’s Facebook page reveals a mix of civic news about Wal-Mart withdrawing plans to build a store, photos of his cedar woodwork, (long-debunked) headlines about #PizzaGate and memes and videos that frequently target Muslims.

Local residents are gathering signatures and building momentum to try to remove Sieting from office, the Record-Eagle reported.

Why it’s important

The incident involving Sieting is one of roughly 3,000 hateful incidents submitted to ProPublica’s Documenting Hate database. Since it launched in January, people have submitted more than 250 reports from around the country, citing actions that involve Muslims, people believed to be Muslim or allegations against people who are Muslim. The database indicates whether the incidents are being relayed first- or second-hand; if they occurred online ; or involve threats, hate-speech, property damage or assault. If trolls submit claims, journalists and volunteers analyze and label reports false, if appropriate, and verify claims. Many incidents remain unverified.

The database comes at a time when there’s heightened hostility against Muslims in the United States and around the world. The Trump administration continues to defend its travel ban, which targets those coming from six Muslim-majority nations, in federal courts across the country. Those who have challenged the order, like a federal judge in Hawaii, say the executive order is discriminatory, among other things.

The hostility is picking up abroad, too: Officials in the Philippines recently threatened to establish a mandatory Muslim identification card system, according to Human Rights Watch. In India, a mob beat four Muslim teens on a train amid allegations that they ate beef, the BBC reported; in recent months, Muslims in the country have been targeted on allegations that they consumed beef or butchered cows.

4. Manchester victims and survivors air frustrations over British government’s slow action in addressing bombing aftermath

A man photographs a sign in Manchester, Britain. Photo by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

A man photographs a sign in Manchester, Britain. Photo by Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The British government has yet to follow through on its promise to financially assist the victims of the Manchester bombing, which killed 22 people seven weeks ago, The Guardian reported.

Though families of the victims and survivors have recieved emergency funds from the We Love Manchester charity fund, Great Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said those affected by the attack felt the government had shortchanged its commitment to helping them in the bombing aftermath.

The British newspaper noted that the city council recently called for a “swift resolution” to its request for more assistance from the government. Otherwise, “disappointment and dismay” could follow, the council said.

Why it’s important

A few weeks after the terrorist attack, which targeted an Ariana Grande pop concert, a massive apartment building fire in London killed as many as 80 people as flames trapped residents within Grenfell Tower.

Manchester residents said the government was quick to provide financial assistance to victims of the fire, but failed to address the needs of those affected in the Manchester bombing, according to The Guardian.

The newspaper noted how British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged 5 million pounds in emergency funds for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, “despite the disaster taking place in the richest borough in the UK.”

“What happened at Grenfell Tower was awful, very much like the Manchester arena bomb,” Manchester bombing survivor Adam Garrison told The Guardian. “Naturally you think it would bring together a show of unity between the government and the public, but unfortunately there has not been much forthcoming.”

5. When ‘slime eels’ took the highway

A car covered in "slime" from hagfish, which spilled out of a truck onto a highway in Oregon last week. Photo courtesy of Oregon State Police.

A car covered in “slime” from hagfish, which spilled out of a truck onto a highway in Oregon last week. Photo courtesy of Oregon State Police.

Hagfish are badasses of the sea: They can go for months without food, have two rows of tooth-like structures to gnaw on animal carcasses and can tie their bodies into a knot to avoid suffocating on their own slime, Smithsonian Magazine says.

Last Thursday, on U.S. 101 in Oregon, a semi truck carrying 3.4 tons of the fish, affectionately dubbed “slime eels,” was headed north on the highway when it overturned, causing a five-vehicle pileup … and a 150 to 200-yard jam of fish, bewildered motorists and “slime,” mucus secreted by the hagfish’s glands as a way to defend themselves or their food.

Thousands of eel-like hagfish splayed across every lane, covering sedans, hybrids and the pavement with the snot-like slime in a scene that would have put “Ghostbusters” to shame.

The shipment of hagfish was headed for South Korea, where overfishing has all but wiped out the delicacy, the Washington Post reports.

“A single hagfish can fill a 5-gallon bucket with slime, seemingly instantly,” Marine science and conservation consultant Andrew David Thaler wrote in a pun-filled FAQ on the blog Southern Fried Science.

The Internet, of course, had a field day.

Oregon State Police Sergeant Jeff Proloux told NewsHour that “I cannot think of another time when we [saw] a truck carrying seafood crash like this.”

Once police and the department of transportation were able to clear cars, it took several hours to hose the roadway clear, Proloux said. It took even longer to collect all of the fish wriggling along the roadway.

Why it’s important

The Pacific Northwest is a goldmine for those harvesting hagfish, which lurk along continental margins at depths of up to 2,970 feet, Gizmodo says.

The fish are considered a sustainable source of seafood, popular particularly in Asian countries, where demand is growing but supply is shrinking.

Scientists think hagfish slime could be the next “eco-friendly, high performance material.”

But if there’s one thing last Thursday’s incident made clear, it is not the next high performance material for the roadway.

The incident remains under investigation. As for whether insurance will cover the damage, Thaler quipped: “This may technically count as an Act of Cod.”

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