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Our World Transcript — January 15-16, 2005

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

Straight ahead "Our World," Deep Impact heads into space aiming for a comet ... the environmental impact of the tsunami ... and choosing the best way to fight the AIDS epidemic


"Our main message to policy makers is that we have to keep moving on both fronts. We have to get treatment to those who are in dire need now, but we can't lose sight of the longer term objectives.

The need for AIDS prevention, not just treatment, plus cancer and diet. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Three weeks after the December 26th Indian Ocean tsunami, humanitarian aid continues to target those hardest hit by the disaster. And, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the United Nations has begun its assessment of the tsunami's impact on coastal ecosystems...and on public health

SKIRBLE: The end-of-the-year-tsunami struck the Asian coastlines with a deadly one-two punch.

The first blow came as a powerful coral reef-crushing wave that tore up coral reefs on its way to shore.

The second blow pulled everything from shore back out to sea -- from human remains, coastal debris and building materials to silt and sludge.

Eric Falt, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, says the tsunami destroyed local drinking water systems and created an immediate public health concern crisis over the availability of clean, fresh water.


We know that there is a lot of seawater contamination well inside the coastline. We know that wells and irrigation systems have been polluted by seawater and that this is going to have an impact on agriculture. So obviously this is a question of the direct livelihood of the population concerned.

SKIRBLE: Mr. Falt says the status condition of several major industrial sites after the tsunami is also a great worry.


We know that there [are] a lot of them. They are chemical storage sites, electrical facilities and oil refineries. There are port facilities also. And, we are focusing a large part of our remote sensing and technical capabilities there to better assist the governments, but also industry.

SKIRBLE: UNEP will assess the condition of coral reefs, mangroves and forested coastlines. These vital ecosystems are natural buffers against coastal erosion and extreme weather. They are also valuable nurseries for fish.

A comprehensive survey by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network published before the tsunami found that one-third of the coral reefs in the region hit by the disaster is were already threatened with extinction.

Well before the damaging waves, Destructive fishing practices, poor management of coastal development and unrestrained the growth associated with tourism are largely to blame had taken a heavy environmental toll..

The tsunami adds another sorry detail to an already grim picture.

UNEP Spokesman Erik Falt says the U.N. is trying to assess how much damage the tsunami did, using high tech satellite-based sensing tools to collect data on coastal conditions.


We are also developing a danger zone or vulnerability maps for the region so that when the redevelopment process takes place, those who have to make decisions can better understand where the highest risks are and in some cases to proceed differently than in the past.

SKIRBLE: One of the worlds leading conservation groups, the World Wildlife Fund, was affected by and is working alongside UNEP to respond to the tsunami.

WWF Vice President Bill Eichbaum says WWF the groups field conservation offices report extensive damage to coastal resources, wetlands, estuaries and critical coastal habitats.


At this point in time we don't have a complete assessment on wildlife. That will take a long time to get completed. But, it appears that there are certain species that were affected, most importantly that we are aware of at this time, sea turtles because many sea turtles were nesting at the time that this took place and they have been severely affected.

SKIRBLE: WWF's Bill Eichbaum says the conservation group is calling on governments and coastal managers to employ sustainable practices as they rebuild.


There is the story of one hotel in Thailand far back from the coast, didn't even allow beach chair or umbrella development on the sandy beach because of their desire to protect those beaches for turtles and there was less harm to the residents that were in that hotel. We think that proper planning and reconstruction in the future can mitigate a lot of the effects of future storms, and, not ones as big as this tsunami. This is a region affected by monsoons, cyclones and there is more immediate reason to do this.

SKIRBLE: Tsunami recovery was on the agenda of the Sustainable Development for Small Island Developing States meeting this week in Mauritius. The forum was planned organized before the tsunami disaster.

UNESCO used the meeting to announce plans for a global strategy to develop a Tsunami Early Warning System, including one for the Indian Ocean.

The Worldwatch Institute, a private environmental research group based here in Washington, is out with its annual State of the World report. This year, says Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin, the report looks at issues like climate change, food availability and infectious disease through the prism of global political security.

FLAVIN (:17) "Poverty, disease, and environmental decline are the true axis of evil, and unless these threats are recognized and responded to, the world runs the risk of being blindsided by the new forces of instability, just as we were by the September 11th attacks."

In the 237-page State of the World report, Worldwatch stresses the link between environmental decline and political and social instability. At a briefing for reporters, co-author Michael Renner listed some of the threats, starting with the risks facing a global economy that's reliant on petroleum-based fuel.

RENNER (:33) "Continued heavy dependence on oil fuels geopolitical rivalries, civil wars, and human rights violations. Water: worldwide, more than 430 million people currently face water scarcity. Food security: nearly two billion people suffer from hunger and chronic nutrient deficiencies. Now among the major food security threats on the horizon are climate change, the ongoing loss of biodiversity, and the rise of food-borne illness and possibly bioterror."

Also threatening the global security situation, Mr. Renner noted, are infectious diseases such as SARS. In Southern Africa, the Worldwatch report says HIV/AIDS has weakened farming communities, devastated education, and threatened social and political stability.

Worldwatch says that even natural disasters like last month's Indian Ocean tsunamis, which were triggered by an earthquake, can be magnified by environmental degradation as population density increases and more land is developed.

RENNER (:35) "Ecosystem destruction and population growth are setting the stage for more frequent and more devastating natural disasters -- or as we sometimes refer to them as, unnatural disasters, disasters that are really worsened, helped along by the human hand inadvertently. Three times as many people -- that's 250 million -- were affected by such events in 2004 than were in 1990. And I think the pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more storms, flood and drought."

In his introduction to this year's State of the World report, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev writes - quote - "we need to recognize that Earth's resources are finite. To waste our limited resources," writes Mr. Gorbachev, "is to lose them in the foreseeable future, with potentially dire consequences for all regions and the world."

On Monday, Americans observe the annual holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here on "Our World," we honor the life and work of Dr. King with our Website of the Week, the King Papers project at Stanford University.

Since 1985, history professor Clayborne Carson has been editing the speeches, letters, sermons and other writings of Dr. King in what eventually will be a 14-volume series. As that work continues, more and more material is being made available online at

CARSON (:13) "And now, hundreds and even thousands of documents are available on our website, and people throughout the world can get access to information that just 20 years ago was only available to a handful of researchers."

The King Papers project has developed a set of lessons called the Liberation Curriculum, designed to teach about the values of social justice and non-violence that Dr. King championed in his lifetime.

CARSON (:09) "They can learn about one of the times in history where ordinary people, including many people their own age, changed the course of history."

Martin Luther King is remembered not only as a great civil rights leader but also as an orator of prodigious skill. On you can read and listen to excerpts of some of Dr. King's great speeches, like "I Have a Dream."

KING (:11) "One day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!"

For more on the life of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to read and hear his words, point your browser to, or get the link from our site,


You're listening to VOA's Science and Technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington

The United Nations estimates about 40 million people are infected with the HIV virus, and around three million people died of AIDS last year.

The vast majority of those cases are in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, one out of every 13 people in the region is infected.

Even with significant international assistance and new, cheaper medicines, there is simply not enough money to treat everyone who needs treatment, while at the same time mounting prevention campaigns to help limit the number of new cases. So the question that has faced public health and policy experts has been how best to allot those resources. Now, research published this week recommends that some treatment money should be diverted to prevention efforts if the epidemic is to be contained.

SALOMON (:12) "What we find is that treatment without effective prevention simply cannot reverse the epidemic, and that treatment programs will be incredibly hard to sustain if we don't curb the number of new infections."

Researcher Joshua Salomon at the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues constructed a model -- a computer simulation -- of the epidemic, so they could test the impact of various combinations of treatment and prevention programs. Their analysis indicates that the best outcome comes from mixing the two strategies:

SALOMON (:12) "While treatment can be life-saving and is urgently needed by people, the long-term gains in mortality are really going to be achieved only by protecting people from getting infected in the first place."

In an article published in the online journal PLoS Medicine, Dr. Salomon writes that decisions on allocating scarce resources in the battle against HIV/AIDS have often been based on less-than-scientific factors. Dr. Salomon says politics is a major influence:

SALOMON (:30) "Decisions are driven by these speculations or by predictions about what might happen, but these predictions haven't been largely based on a very rigorous analytic framework. They're driven by politics. They're driven by inertia. They're driven by various other factors. And our motivation to do this study was really to try to put together the pieces of information that we do have in a way that will inform these decisions based on the best available evidence."

With the help of significant international assistance, many HIV/AIDS patients have been helped by new, cheaper drugs to control the infection, and the temptation understandably is to focus resources on the immediate need of those who are sick. But Dr. Salomon says that would be a mistake.

SALOMON (:15) "Our main message to policy makers is that we have to keep moving on both fronts. We have to get treatment to those who are in dire need now, but we can't lose sight of the longer term objectives. Treatment alone isn't going to do it. We can only really do it by protecting people from getting infected."

And just a word about the journal that published Dr. Salomon's article, PLoS Medicine. PLoS stands for Public Library of Science, a family of scholarly journals published on the open access model. Most scientific publications, whether from non-profit organizations or profit-making companies, are sold by subscription. Open access publications charge the authors, but not the readers. And that was important to Joshua Salomon.

SALOMON (:09) "I just don't think this knowledge should be contingent on people's ability to pay for it. So I think open access really is the right model for science."

Open access journals in science and medicine are still the exception rather than the rule, but the Directory of Open Access Journals lists about 14-hundred scientific and scholarly journals now working on this model.

There's a new report out this week linking high consumption of red meat and processed meat with colon cancer.

The huge study included almost 150,000 people across the United States who were asked questions about their dietary habits.

THUN (:11) For people who reported high consumption of red meat and processed meat on both questionnaires, that is long-term high consumption, we found about a 50 percent higher risk of colon cancer.

Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society was one of the researchers in the study, which appears in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association. This is not the first study to investigate the link between red meat - beef and pork, mainly - and cancer. But it is one of the largest, and it controls for other factors such as cigarette smoking.

He says the study also showed benefits of a diet that includes fish and poultry.

THUN (:15) The consumption of fish and chicken was related to lower risk and this was not just a function of displacing red meat in the diet, but it actually was significantly related to lower risk on its own.

The study followed participants for as long as two decades, and Dr. Thun sresses that the link between meat and cancer is tied to long-term eating habits. In other words,

THUN (:11) Having a steak to celebrate is not really going to affect your risk of colon cancer, but if meat is a central component of your diet over a long period of time, that could well affect your risk.

Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society.

Meanwhile, in a separate study also reported in this week's JAMA, researchers in the Netherlands failed to find any evidence that eating fruits and vegetables can reduce women's risk of developing breast cancer. The results come from an ongoing Europe-wide study of relationship between diet and cancer called EPIC that is following more than a half-million participants to see how their eating habits may influence their likelihood of getting cancer. Previous studies have indicated a diet rich in fruits and vegetable may help protect women from getting breast cancer, but this study didn't find it.

Commenting in the two studies, an editorial by Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, described the latest findings as illustrating the evolving nature of research linking food and cancer. And he also points out that eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of heart disease, regardless of the impact on cancer risk.

MUSIC: "Meat and Potato Man" (Alan Jackson)

The U.S. space agency NASA Wednesday launched a spacecraft on an unprecedented scientific mission to a comet. In July, part of the Deep Impact spacecraft will smash into a comet to allow a look inside. Scientists want to know what a comet's nucleus is made of, and believe the best way to find out is to blast a hole in one. VOA's David McAlary describes the mission.

McALARY: The target is the comet Tempel 1, a 431-million kilometer voyage from Earth for Deep Impact. It is typical of the comets that emerge from the so-called Kuiper belt of objects orbiting beyond the planet Neptune and swing around the sun.

NASA scientist Tom Morgan describes a comet as a big dirty snowball in space, a glowing collection of ice, rocks, dust, and gases whose interior composition is intriguing.

MORGAN: "What we're interested in is the source of the dust and gas that forms the coma, which is a small core of ices, organic compounds, and dust called the nucleus. These objects are of interest to us because they are literally the leftover building blocks of our solar system."

McALARY: Knowing the makeup of a comet would provide information about the chemistry and physics of the solar system as it formed four-and-a-half billion years ago.

The U.S. Deep Impact mission is unique among space projects. The head of NASA's Solar System Division, Andrew Dantzler, says it will dispatch a 372-kilogram copper impactor to actually penetrate a comet's surface.

DANTZLER: "Deep Impact's rendezvous in space with Tempel 1 will be the first time a spacecraft has ever touched the surface of a comet. In fact, the impactor will penetrate the comet's surface, blowing material away from the surface of the comet and revealing the mysteries of the interior of the nucleus."

McALARY: It all takes place on July 4th, when the Deep Impact spacecraft releases its impactor while it is flying in the comet's path. The spacecraft is then to execute a deflecting maneuver to get out of the way shortly before the comet smashes into the missile at a relative speed of 37,000 kilometers per hour.

Before its demise, the impactor is to transmit the sharpest pictures ever of a comet, while cameras on the mothership return views of the excavation from above and photograph the structure beneath the surface. Deep Impact project manager Rick Grammier says the three orbiting U.S. space telescopes and many ground observatories worldwide will also be trained on the event, which could be bright.

GRAMMIER: "So we expect to provide some great fireworks for all our observatories."

McALARY: Mission scientists do not know how spectacular the space collision will be. If the comet is mostly a pile of rocks held together loosely by ice, the resulting crater could be shallow and wide, with a lot of material thrown up. If it is mostly hard ice, then the hole would be deeper and narrower with less material ejected. Or the impactor could be swallowed without a significant hole if the material is soft and fluffy. The mission's chief investigator, Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, says the crater could be anywhere from centimeters to dozens of meters deep.

A'HEARN: "The problem is there are no data on the interior. That's what we hope to solve with Deep Impact. A related question is that the comets we know eventually stop outgassing. Is this because they have exhausted all the gas in the interior, or is it because the surface layer has developed some sort of a crust that prevents the ice inside from evaporating and escaping as gas."

McALARY: Whatever Deep Impact gleans from its encounter with comet Tempel 1, Mr. A'Hearn says the crash will not push it into a collision course with Earth.

A'HEARN: "The impact will, of course, will make a change in the orbit of the comet, but the change will be so small as to be undetectable."

CHIMES: That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you -- IF we use your question on the program. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

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Our World is edited this week by Rob Sivak. 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.