First Measles Case in Iceland in Five Years

Landspítali national hospital

An adult traveller visiting Iceland was diagnosed with measles on February 2, Iceland’s first case of the highly infection illness in five years. The man is in isolation at the National Hospital and all those at risk of exposure to the illness have been contacted by authorities.

A serious illness

Measles are a highly infectious, serious illness, characterised by red flecks that spread across the skin. The death rate of measles infection is 1-3 per 1,000 cases. Once infected, it usually takes 10-12 days for symptoms to appear.

While those who have been vaccinated against measles are very unlikely to get infected, participation in measles vaccination in Iceland has been falling in recent years. According to the newest review by the Directorate of Health, participation has dropped from around 93-95% down to around 90%, which is too low to maintain herd immunity.

“We would really like to see higher [participation] in order to better prevent the spread of infection through society, but participation needs to be quite good to ensure that,” Chief Epidemiologist Guðrún Aspelund told RÚV. She added that measles infections are on the rise in Europe, which increases the likelihood of an outbreak in Iceland.

Eradicated in the 90s in Iceland

Measles were eradicated in Iceland in the 1990s, and were not diagnosed again until 2014. Since that date, all measles cases diagnosed in Iceland have originated abroad. “It’s not circulating here in Iceland and we want to prevent it from spreading and leading to group outbreaks or more cases here,” Guðrún stated.

Children in Iceland typically receive two measles vaccinations, which Guðrún says provide protection for life.

Wage Negotiations Advance, Media Ban Imposed

State Mediator Ástráður Haraldsson

Union and business representatives have restarted wage negotiations after a break of almost a week, Vísir reports. The parties have agreed on a basis for the negotiations, according to State Mediator Ástráður Haraldsson. One union leader said IKEA’s price reductions are a good contribution to the negotiations.

Media ban imposed

The negotiations impact the working conditions of some 93% of workers on the general labour market in Iceland. After signs of progress in the negotiations appeared, Ástráður banned all parties from speaking with the media, a move often instituted when an agreement seems nigh.

Price reductions and freezes a positive contribution

Vilhjálmur Birgisson, Chairman of the Federation of General and Special Workers in Iceland, did, however, speak to a Vísir reporter on the price reductions announced by IKEA in Iceland, calling them a positive contribution to the negotiations. The reductions could help in bringing down inflation and interest rates, “which are making Icelandic households miserable,” he stated.

Vilhjálmur pointed out that BYKO has also decided to freeze prices for six months, and encouraged other businesses to follow the two companies’ example.

Reykjanes Could Erupt Again Next Week

Grindavík volcanic eruption January 2024

The next eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula could occur as soon as next week, RÚV reports. Land uplift at Svartsengi is occurring at a faster rate than prior to the January 2024 eruption in the area. Kristín Jónsdóttir, head of the natural hazards department at the Icelandic Met Office, says an eruption or other volcanic event could occur with little notice.

Magma chamber below Svartsengi

Land by the Svartsengi Power Plant and the Blue Lagoon has risen by up to 8 millimetres per day in recent days, slightly faster than before the January 14 eruption outside of the town of Grindavík. This indicates that the magma chamber beneath Svartsengi is likely expanding and could eventually causing an eruption or form a magma tunnel like the one that formed below the town of Grindavík at the end of last year.

Kristín believes such an event is not far off. “Assuming that this continues at a similar pace as has happened before, it can be expected that there will be another magma outburst in February, around mid-February, or even next week,” Kristín stated.

Eruption could occur with little notice

“The magma could start flowing without there being much seismic activity or us getting a lot of warning long before,” Kristín stated. She pointed out that seismic activity only increased one hour before the December eruption at Sundhnúkagígar.

Read more about the recent eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Yellow Weather Warning Across South Iceland

yellow weather warning Feb 1 2024

Heavy rain and extreme thawing are expected across the Reykjavík capital area, as well as the western, southern, and southwest regions of Iceland tonight. The Icelandic Met Office has issued yellow weather alerts for the regions between 8:00 PM this evening and 6:00 AM tomorrow morning.

Rain and rapidly rising temperatures are expected to cause higher water levels in rivers and streams as well as an increased risk of flooding. Locals are advised to clear grates to prevent flood damage from rain and meltwater. Conditions are also expected to be slippery, due to rainfall on ice and compressed snow. Travellers are encouraged to exercise caution and monitor weather forecasts and road conditions regularly.

Updated Sex Ed Curriculum for Secondary Students in Iceland

Iceland’s Association for Sexual Health has published new educational material for sex ed in secondary schools. The material takes into account the major societal changes that have taken place in recent years, the association’s chairperson told RÚV.

The material consists of a new teaching manual for secondary school teachers, titled Youth Sexual Health and Wellbeing. The manual is a product of collaboration with a broad range of organisations, including the National Queer Association of Iceland (Samtökin ’78) the feminist disability movement Tabú and Trans Iceland. Secondary school teachers were also involved in the development of the material.

Self-esteem and sexual health

The manual’s 13 lessons cover a wide range of topics, from self-esteem and body image to emotions, porn literacy, healthy relationships, STI prevention, and pregnancy. The lesson plans use interactive teaching methods that actively involve students in the learning process.

Updated teaching material

Sóley Bender, the chairperson of Iceland’s Association for Sexual Health, told RÚV she hopes some teachers will start testing the material this autumn. The sex ed curriculum was last updated in 2011 and there have been many societal changes since that time.

“We know for example that just the Metoo movement and the whole discussion that took place after it regarding abuse. That is something that needs to be discussed.” Sóley adds that it is also necessary to take diversity into account in the curriculum and integrate it into teaching materials.

The manual is publicly available on the association’s website.

Iceland Suspends Palestine Relief Payments

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs has suspended payments to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Opposition MPs criticise the decision, calling it “harsh.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed to countries who have suspended UNRWA payments to reconsider, saying: “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

Allegations of participation in October 7 attacks

Founded in 1949, the UNRWA is the United Nations’ main agency supporting the relief and human development of Palestinian regufees in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA runs shelters for the displaced and currently distributes the only aid that Israel is allowing into the Gaza strip.

Iceland has been working with UNRWA for decades. In September last year, Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs signed a contract with the organisation for continued support until 2028.

Several Western countries have temporarily suspended financial support to UNRWA over allegations that some UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks on Israel. The staff members in question have already been fired from the organisation, which will also conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

Contrary to ruling from International Court of Justice

“It’s absolutely horrible that we’re taking part in this. And we should follow the Norwegians’ example, who have decided in light of the terrible situation in Gaza, to continue their funding while this investigation is ongoing,” Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir told RÚV.

“What is absolutely clear is a ruling from the highest court of the international community that humanitarian aid must come to Gaza,” Þórhildur Sunna continued. “And the Icelandic government’s first rection is to stop humanitarian aid to Gaza. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Social Democratic Alliance MP Logi Einarsson also criticised Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson’s decision to suspend the payments harsh. “Thirty thousand people work for the organisation, including 13,000 in Gaza and the investigation is on 12 individuals,” Logi stated. “It is therefore a very harsh reaction to punish millions of people in a complete humanitarian crisis and on the verge of starvation.”

Keeping in Step

Icelandic folk dancing, Árbæjarsafn

It was a Friday night in Reykjavík, and I was looking for a dance floor. You may expect, dear reader, that I was on my way to one of the dimly lit clubs that line Laugavegur street, where young bodies sway to pulsing, electronic beats. Actually, I was heading somewhere entirely different: to a wood-panelled […]

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Wall of Fire

Reykjanes peninsula eruptions

Sunday, bloody Sunday On Sunday morning, January 14, around 4:30 AM, Ari Guðmundsson’s phone rang. The Reykjanes peninsula was trembling. Three and a half hours later, it rang again. This time it was Víðir Reynisson, the head of Iceland’s Civil Protection Department. A fissure had opened and an eruption had begun.The long, earthen lava barriers […]

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Government Considers Buying Out Grindavík Homeowners

The Icelandic government is considering buying out Grindavík homeowners who want to relocate in light of the ongoing volcanic threat to the town. At a press conference this afternoon, government ministers announced long-term measures are in the works to relieve Grindavík residents of the financial burden of owning homes in which they cannot live. The measures are still being finalised but will be put forth in a legislative bill in early February.

Unknown if or when Grindavík residents can return home

Grindavík was evacuated on November 10, 2023 due to strong earthquakes and the threat of volcanic eruption. A short but powerful eruption occurred near the town in December, and a second one in January occurred just outside the town limits, destroying three houses at the town’s northern edge.

Magma continues to collect underground at Svartsengi, north of Grindavík, and volcanologists say that further eruptions can be expected in the area. Grindavík has sustained considerable damage to infrastructure and homes, and it is unclear when residents will be able to return home.

Government aims to resolve uncertainty

The government measures introduced today are intended to resolve the uncertainty Grindavík residents have been faced with since they were evacuated from their homes last year. The measures aim to enable Grindavík residents to establish secure homes and ensure secure livelihoods while the town remains unsafe to inhabit. The government has also extended its short-term support measures for the displaced Grindavík residents.

At the press conference, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir made it clear that the government was still finalising exactly what form the assistance would take, but that it was considering both buying out Grindavík homeowners so they would have the funds to purchase housing elsewhere, as well as taking on the interest payments on their mortgages to relieve them of that financial burden.

The decision is a big one, Finance Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir underlined. She added that government measures would impact other economic goals such as curbing persistent inflation. She outlined that the government would also explore whether it was possible to delay such a big decision as buying out homeowners through other measures that would relieve financial pressure on Grindavík residents.

 

Bill on Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers Published

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

A draft bill proposed by Iceland’s Justice Minister would permit authorities to hold asylum seekers in detention centres, including families and children. Setting up such detention centres could cost between ISK 420 and 600 million [$3.1 million-4.4 million, €2.8 million-4 million]. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the establishment of such centres in Iceland.

The bill, which comes from Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, was published in the government’s consultation portal last week, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it.

According to the summary on the consultation portal, the bill proposes permitting authorities to keep “foreign citizens who have to or may have to leave the country” in “a closed residence” when they have received a deportation order or “when a case that may lead to such a decision is being processed by the government.” According to the bill, the measure would “only be used as a last resort, when an adequate assessment has been carried out and it is clear that milder measures will not be effective.”

Children detained for up to nine days

The bill would permit authorities to detain children in such centres, if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian, but would not permit the detention of unaccompanied children. The detention of children would have to conform to “stricter requirements” than that of adults.

The bill proposes permitting the detention of children in such facilities for up to three days at a time and up to nine days in total. Adults could be detained in the centres for up to eight weeks.

If the bill is approved, the legislation would take effect at the beginning of 2026.

Restricted press access and use of force

While the bill distinguishes detention centres for asylum seekers from prisons, many of the restrictions proposed for such centres resemble that of traditional prisons, including separation between the sexes, restrictions on visits, and room searches. Staff would be permitted to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary,” including physical restraints or “the use of appropriate means of force.”

The bill stipulates that the National Police Commissioner would decide whether to allow detained individuals to give interviews to media and that interviews “would not be permitted if they are contrary to the public interest.”

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The detention centre bill is the latest of several measures Iceland’s current government has taken to tighten regulations on asylum seekers. Last year, dozens of asylum seekers who were unable to leave the country for personal or political reasons were stripped of housing and services after new legislation took effect. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was revised several times and passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

The detractors of the detention centre draft bill assert that it violates the United Nations Convention on Refugees, the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iceland is a party.