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Our World Transcript - December 25, 2004

This transcript is provided as a service, but there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

Straight ahead on this special edition of Our World, we revisit some of our favorite stories of the past year ... going door-to-door to battle polio ... using elephant DNA to stop ivory poaching ... and the development of a wonder drug

AUDIO: Lax (:11)
"They had asked for 100 [British] pounds. Now admittedly, this was just to get started. But the medical research council wrote back and said, 'we don't have 100 pounds; here's 25 pounds.' So really, something that changed the world started on a 25-pound grant."

A penicillin story, plus a new business model for scientific publishing. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World.

MUSIC: Up to button

Efforts to eradicate polio continue, and the end is tantilizingly close, but the disease stubbornly continues to affect people in a handful of countries. In November, a U.N. report noted that anti-polio campaigns were making good progress in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, while experiencing some setbacks in sub-Saharan Africa. The battle against the disease often has to be waged house-to-house, as Steve Baragona shows us in this report from India.

BARAGONA: The click-clacking of weavers' looms rattles through the village of Sarva in Uttar Pradesh. Weavers from India's Muslim minority are making silk saris for the women of the Hindu majority. This northern Indian state is one of polio's last strongholds.

That's in part because when the campaign to vaccinate children against the disease comes knocking, many people here don't answer.

"This is a typical case. They are not even opening the door."

BARAGONA: Polio eradication campaign official Subodh Kumar says in some villages, vaccinators find that parents go to great lengths to hide their children.

"They went to one of the houses where [the parents] said, 'There is no child. (The) child has gone to school.' But [the vaccinators] said, 'The child is not of that age to go to school. Where is the child?' They went in and they found the child was under the blanket."

BARAGONA: Some parents hide their children because of rumors that the vaccine will make children infertile, or harm their health some other way. Officials know that unless they can convince parents in these last few pockets of resistance that the polio vaccine is safe… the eradication effort will fail. In Nigeria, misinformation about the vaccine has shut down vaccination programs, causing an outbreak that has spread the disease to polio-free countries.

So Indian health officials are pulling out all the stops. In Sarva and a few other villages where resistance is strongest, ten-person teams have been assembled, including local doctors, religious leaders, and other community members. Their mission is to go house by house, convincing, cajoling, and if necessary browbeating parents into vaccinating their children.

The team meets this man outside his home in Sarva. He's heard the false rumors that the vaccine is dangerous. "I had 12 children," he says, "and I'm left with just two. The rest of them died. I just don't have the courage to let the doctor give my child the vaccine."

It's not an unusual story. Child mortality rates in Uttar Pradesh are among the highest in the world. The team tries to reassure him that the vaccine won't do any harm. They say look at all the other neighborhood children who have taken the vaccine with no ill effects. At the same time, they urge the father to think of what can happen if his children don't get vaccinated. Team member and local doctor Awadhesh Kumar Singh notes that polio victims are a common sight in India.


BARAGONA: "You've seen children who have had polio," he says. "It's very difficult for them to walk. Think of your neighbor's child, how difficult it is for him to walk."

But still the father is not convinced. He stands frowning, arms crossed and silent as the team tries different approaches. But it's no use. After 15 minutes, he storms off without agreeing. So the team heads across town, past the rattling looms, to see his father.


BARAGONA: The children's grandfather sells betelnut packets, a mildly narcotic treat that's popular in India. The team finds him sitting in the wooden box on stilts that serves as his roadside stall. Dr. Singh asks for permission to vaccinate his grandchildren.


BARAGONA: "Is it necessary?" the grandfather asks.
"Yes," Dr. Singh answers. "And if all the children in your family don't get vaccinated, polio will spread to other children. If one child is left unvaccinated, the vaccine won't work," he says.

That's because it can take up to 10 doses of vaccine to provide complete protection. One child with polio can infect others who haven't completed the course of vaccination. And, he says, it's essential to give the vaccine before the child gets sick.


BARAGONA: "If a dog bites," Dr. Singh says, "the victim can go get a vaccine against rabies. But if polio strikes, it's too late. There is no cure, only prevention. Only the polio vaccine can prevent children from getting the disease."

But the grandfather is not convinced.

"I leave everything in God's hands," he says.

BARAGONA: The team members keep talking, but the grandfather won't budge. Dr. Singh gets annoyed, and he threatens to put him in his report to the government about the day's activities. Refusing the vaccine is not illegal. But Dr. Singh suggests it soon will be.


"If people like you don't do it," he says, "there will be a rule. Whoever has the disease will spend six months in jail and pay a 5,000-rupee fine. Then you'll understand. Then you'll run to get this."

TEXT: But there's no response. They offer him one last chance. Still no response. But just as they're about to give up,

The grandfather relents. But the saga doesn't end there. When two team members go back to the house to vaccinate the children, they find the father has hidden them. The vaccinators have to bring the grandfather back to the house before the father brings them out.

The team started the day with a list of 22 such families. At the day's end, they had convinced 16 of them to change their minds.

But Sarva is just one small village. Experts say a similar effort will be necessary in every last pocket of resistance. The final battle to eradicate polio must be fought house to house.

CHIMES: Despite a 1989 ban on the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, the illegal ivory trade is as brisk as ever. As part of stepped-up efforts to protect elephants, researchers have been using genetic technology to create a map of heavily-poached areas in Africa. VOA's Jessica Berman reports from Washington.

BERMAN: The ban on the trade of ivory was adopted almost fifteen years ago. But since 1995, the number of slaughtered elephants has been rising each year because poachers have found holes in the prohibition.

To try to clamp down on the increasing slaughter, scientists are using elephant DNA to crack down on heavily poached areas in Africa.

Samuel Wasser heads the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. Mr. Wasser and colleagues found that the genetic material of elephants is unique in twenty-eight areas throughout Africa, and by deciphering the DNA of tiny pieces of seized ivory, they can trace elephant tusks to particular locations.


"It tells us what's going on with the movement of ivory throughout Africa. And, when combined with other bits of evidence, it can help crack a case. Just like any forensic case, very rarely does any one single bit of information give you the answer. But it's the combination of everything together that does."


BERMAN: Mr. Wasser says the DNA technique can also help investigators determine a tusk's country of origin, which is important if poachers try to hide it among stocks of legitimate tusks.


"It tells us, did all this ivory really came from the country that it was originally shipped from, which was Zambia? Or did it come from many different countries? And if it came from many countries, then that starts to tell us things like ivory that has been stockpiled in other places as being essentially pulled together and shipped out in single shipments in several key locations. So it tells us what's going on with the movement of ivory throughout Africa."


BERMAN: Some call it the "white gold" of the animal kingdom because elephant ivory fetches huge sums of money on the black market. Despite the international ban, there was a huge seizure of tusks in Singapore two years ago worth more than $6 million. The illegal cargo included more than than 500 tusks destined to be carved into intricate figurines costing thousands of dollars each.

In addition to the tusks, Mr. Wasser says the crates contained tens of thousands of small pieces of ivory with family seals carved into them called "hankos" that sell for around $150 apiece.


"To make the 41,000 henkos, who knows how many elephants that was. You know, I think conservatively, there were 2,000 elephants in that."


BERMAN: The World Wildlife Fund estimates that four-thousand elephants are currently being killed each year for their ivory. The endangered species groups say many countries cannot afford the cost of monitoring poaching. Other countries are seeking permission to sell existing stockpiles of legitimate ivory collected before the 1989 ban. That has signaled to black marketeers that it is okay to start poaching again.

Wildlife protection groups say the biggest exporters of African ivory are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Nigeria. The biggest consumers are countries in Asia and the United States.

Research on elephant DNA appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I'm Jessica Berman.

MUSIC: Mancini Baby Elephant Walk

CHIMES: Earlier this year, a top publisher of biomedical journals, Cell Press, announced a new policy to allow free, on-line access to its articles beginning one year after they first appear in print.

The move was welcomed by some, but others described it as a defensive strategy in a growing battle over the cost of subscribing to scientific journals, particularly the cost charged to university libraries.

It's too soon to say whether open access journals will replace traditional scientific publishing. But they do appear to be gaining momentum. In mid-2004, a U.S. Congressional committee recommended that research funded by the taxpayer-supported National Institutes of Health be made freely available to the public not more than six months after publication. And the Directory of Open Access Journals lists about 1,400 scientific and scholarly journals now working on this model.

POTTER (:11)
"On average we spend $5 million a year on journals, and for that we get about 11,000 [titles], so you can see that they average around four or five hundred dollars each."

CHIMES: That's Bill Potter, who runs the University of Georgia library.

POTTER (:09)
"We simply can't continue to afford those. Or if we buy these journals, that means we buy fewer books or fewer journals in the humanities and social sciences."

CHIMES: The economics of publishing scientific journals is somewhat peculiar. The scientist-authors are not paid, and the journal assumes the expense of sending out a proposed article to be checked by other researchers in a process called "peer review." Many journals, particular the small, specialty publications, spread those costs over relatively small circulations. That said, Cell Press' chief executive officer, Lynne Herndon, defends her publications' subscription fees.

"Our prices have always delivered very, very good value. Cell is published 26 times a year, and that is a very low price compared to the prices of some other scientific publications - not all, but some."

CHIMES: Her company's flagship journal, Cell, has a circulation of about 12,000. An individual subscription to Cell is about $160 a year for both the printed magazine and the online edition. An institution pays six times more for the print edition alone, and a site license for online access can cost up to about $10,000, depending on the size of the university's biomedical programs.

Cell Press is owned by Elsevier, an Amsterdam-based company that is a leading scientific publisher ... and a leading target of critics who complain about the company's pricey journals.

Institutional subscription prices for many journals — not just Elsevier's — have been increasing faster than inflation in recent years, says Rick Johnson of SPARC, a group of mainly large university research libraries.

"They've seen their journal prices across the board go up between 1986 and 2002 by 227 percent. At the same time the consumer price index has gone up just 64 percent."

CHIMES: Some scientists and the institutions who buy the journals they publish in, think it's time to devise a new model for disseminating research.

EISEN (:08)
"Our goal is to make the world's scientific and medical literature a freely-available public resource."

CHIMES: Michael Eisen is a co-founder of the Public Library of Science. Like the public libraries that exist in many countries, PLoS (pron. plahss), as it's known, aims for free dissemination of scientific knowledge by upending the traditional economics of scientific publishing.

EISEN (:18)
"Traditionally, and largely today, they recover their costs - and often make a healthy profit - by charging people to access the papers they have published. And the problem with the model in which you charge people to access information is that you have to prevent access for people who haven't paid.

CHIMES: Unlike conventional journals, those published by the Public Library of Science charge the authors $1500 per article. Anyone can read articles online for free, or you can subscribe to the print edition.

While the business side of open access publishing may be radically different, one thing open access advocates don't want to change is the peer review process, says Rick Johnson of the library group SPARC.

"The peer review system is really central to science, and how it works may evolve over the years to come. [But] I think most sensible participants would agree that the filtering that it does and the signaling of relative quality is something that shouldn't go away."

CHIMES: It's too soon to say whether open access journals will replace traditional scientific publishing. But the open access movement does appear to be gaining momentum. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists about 1,400 scientific and scholarly journals now working on this model. Starting in January, Nucleic Acids Research, published by Britain's Oxford University Press, will switch to the open access model. And in mid-2004, a U.S. Congressional committee recommended that research funded by the taxpayer-supported National Institutes of Health be made freely available to the public not more than six months after publication.

Website of the Week is taking a little winter vacation. So this week, why not surf over to our website and check out some of the dozens of interesting online destinations we've featured this year. Point your browser to And stay tuned -- we'll be back with more Websites of the Week again in January.

Perhaps the most successful antibiotic ever developed was penicillin. Hailed as a "miracle drug" when it came into production in the 1940s, penicillin has saved untold millions of lives over the past six decades.

You may have learned, as I did in school, that Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. But Fleming was not able to purify the mold spores and create a useful medicine from it. For that we have to thank a research team that came together at Oxford University more than a decade later and developed the process that transformed a laboratory curiosity into the first modern wonder drug.

The story of Oxford scientists Howard Florey of Australia and his German-Jewish refugee colleague, Ernst Chain, is the subject of a book called The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat. We'll get to that title in a few minutes, but first, author Eric Lax describes the kind of weapons medical science had for treating infections in the pre-penicillin era.

[ERIC LAX interview not transcribed]

Eric Lax is the author of The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat, published by Henry Holt.

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, we'd like to hear from you. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.