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MUSIC: Our World theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... NASA launches the space shuttle, then suspends future flights ... An epidemic of fat ... and surprising results from a study of malaria drugs.
ROSENTHAL: "Non-ACT regimen that we studied has a better effect at preventing a second infection because the drugs are rather long-acting. They stay in your bloodstream for a long time after treatment."
The expensive drug may not be the best, mixed news on immunizations, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
It has been an up-and-down week for the U.S. space agency, NASA.
First the good news. On Tuesday, the space shuttle Discovery roared into space, in a picture-perfect launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
LAUNCH CONTROL: "Six. Five. Three engines up and burning. Three. Two. One. And LIFTOFF of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And the vehicle has cleared the tower."
Less than 48 hours after the dramatic blast-off, the shuttle arrived at its orbiting destination, the International Space Station.
KELLY: "Houston, Alpha-Discovery, we have contact and capture. The shuttle is in free drift."
Shuttle pilot Jim Kelly confirmed the connection, and the shuttle will remain docked at the space station until Friday, with a scheduled return to earth next Sunday.
The shuttle brought supplies and equipment to the space station, where the two-man crew has had to rely on shipments from much smaller Russian spacecraft.
The long-awaited "return to flight" comes two and a half years after shuttle Columbia was destroyed as it re-entered the atmosphere in 2003. Seven astronauts died, and NASA embarked on a major effort to upgrade safety in the shuttle program. And the main purpose of this mission - formally known as STS-114 - is to test those safety improvements.
To monitor the condition of the shuttle during launch, NASA added a veritable constellation of cameras on the ground, in the air, and on the shuttle itself. One of those new cameras provided spectacular live video during the early minutes of the flight, showing the underside of the shuttle covered by critically-important, heat-resistant tiles as the shuttle and its external fuel tank separated. Shuttle manager John Shannon explained that -
SHANNON: "We should remember that this is a test flight and we're seeing areas of the vehicle working in flight regions that we have never seen before. And that's allowed the damage assessment teams and the debris assessment teams that we've set up to go through all this data a head start."
The shuttle is now also equipped with a re-engineered boom to get close-up images of the vehicle's underside, and there are repair kits on board in case they find dangerous damage to the shuttle's heat-resistant surfaces.
Now the bad news. The cameras have enabled NASA technicians to identify several problems. Some of the shuttle's insulating tiles were damaged - none seriously, it seems so far. More worrisome is a one meter-long, 400-gram chunk of foam that broke off during ascent from a structure called the PAL ramp on the shuttle's external fuel tank. NASA specialists believe the foam piece flew off harmlessly, not hitting the shuttle itself. Another, smaller piece of foam may have hit the wing, but apparently was too small to have done any damage if it did. Still, that's a concern.
It was a flyaway piece of foam in 2003 that damaged Columbia's wing, leading to the shuttle's destruction as it re-entered the atmosphere. NASA engineers were confident that modifications since then had solved the flyaway foam problem.
But program manager, Bill Parsons, conceded that engineers have not figured out how to get the insulating foam to stay put.
PARSONS: "We were wrong. We need to do some more work here. And so, we're telling you right now, the PAL ramp foam should not have come off. It came off. We've got to do something about that."
As a result, NASA has suspended future shuttle flights until agency scientists can figure out why the foam won't stay on the external tank, and how they can fix it.
PARSONS: "Until we fix this, we're not ready to go fly again. And so, I mean, you can say that means we're grounded or whatever terminology you want to use. But right now, until we understand this problem, and until we're ready to say that we've fixed it and we can say that we're safe to go fly, we're not going to go fly."
NASA has been criticized in the past for succumbing to pressure to get the shuttle flying again. The launch of Discovery was delayed by a problem with one of four fuel sensors. Launch rules required all four sensors to be working. But in the end, NASA waived its safety rule, and the shuttle went up with only three of the sensors operating reliably.
The first space shuttle flight was almost a quarter-century ago, and the shuttle orbiter was designed in the 1970s. Although it has served far beyond its intended life span, current plans call for shuttle flights to continue for another five years, until the International Space Station is completed. After that, NASA will turn its sights to a return to the Moon and sending humans to Mars.
Some critics are suggesting that maybe now is the time to retire the shuttle. But shuttle program manager Wayne Hale says his people are determined to move forward.
HALE: "You don't go into this business if you're faint of heart. This is a tough business to be in. It is a demanding business. We have obstacles that we have to overcome. If we were to quit at the first sign of difficulty, we would have never made it this far. We're here to stay the course. We have had problems in the past, and we are determined to fix them and go fly successfully in the future.
Whether that happens, though, may depend on NASA's ability to fix a problem that has stubbornly resisted a solution after more than two years of focused effort.
The World Health Organization says the number of people getting fat is growing at an alarming rate. It estimates that one billion people are overweight and another 300 million in the more extreme condition of obesity. The agency expects the incidence of abnormally high weight to double between 1995 and 2025. Being overweight was once considered an exclusively Western disorder, but it now poses a serious threat to the health of developing nations, too. VOA's David McAlary reports on the global epidemic.
McALARY: Until recently, the main health challenges to developing countries were famine and infectious diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. But a looming specter is now obesity and its associated illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and certain forms of cancer. Heaviness is occurring wherever countries are undergoing a shift to urbanization, higher incomes, modern technology and food processing, and more leisure time.
University of Rhode Island anthropologist Marquisa LaVelle told a Boston conference that the greatest increases in average body weight since the early 1950s have been among people in warmer climates.
LAVELLE: "Worldwide rates of obesity have increased to the point where many societies have both under-nutrition and over-nutrition. Given the associations of obesity with chronic diseases, with diabetes, as high risk factors for heart disease and cancers of various sorts, this puts a burden on the developing world that they can ill afford."
McALARY: Researchers at a recent international population meeting in Tours, France, gave some examples. They said 25 percent of Indian women under 50 were overweight, as shown in a national survey six years ago. Data from Mexico and Uruguay shows the prevalence of overweight people at about 20 percent.
The situation is worse in cities. Among the Indian women, those at most risk were city dwellers of high income. In South Africa, Marquisa LaVelle found urban Cape Town children taller, but significantly fatter than their rural ethnic counterparts.
But rural areas are not exempt. University of Oxford researcher Stanley Ulijaszek says the weight problem is especially prevalent among South Pacific islanders, where up to two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women are overweight or obese.
In the Cook Islands, the island of Rarotonga may be remote in terms of distance from most world capitals, but Mr. Ulijaszek says it looks like a New Zealand suburb now that the effects of industrialization have reached it. As a result, adults in Rarotonga have gained six-centimeters in average height since 1952, but have also gained more weight than is good for their new stature.
ULIJASZEK: "That means with globalization, we have a world food system. America features strongly in the world food system, and the penetration of the world food system, the "McDonalds-ization," if you will, means that the dietary change can proceed faster in some of these remote places than was ever possible before."
McALARY: The researchers dismiss the notion that specific genetic traits make some populations more prone to obesity than others. They say the weight gain has occurred too rapidly among too many newly-industrialized cultures to be accounted for by the gene pool. Nor can it be explained by a failure of personal discipline or psychological traits.
Marquisa LaVelle puts the blame on the modern way of living, with its dietary changes and decrease in physical activity. Although she says the impact differs among societies, she believes the solution rests less with dieting than with promoting physical activity. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.
Time again for Our World's Website of the Week. Most of the time we focus on websites with interesting content. This week, the content is good, but what's really special is the user interface. "History Wired" is an experimental web page presented by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History to show the different ways objects in their collection can be linked.
It's a little difficult to describe, but here goes.
When you first click on historywired.si.edu, most of the screen is filled by about 500 small, empty boxes, grouped into sections labeled Clothing, Sports, Business and so on. As you move your mouse over the little boxes, a pop-up label tells you what's in that box.
Museum New Media director Matt MacArthur says it's a way for visitors to browse a selected sampling of the museum's collection.
MacARTHUR: "Some people never get past this point. It's fun to just roll over this and see all these different things pop up and look at the diversity and breadth of the collection. However, if you go ahead and click on that rectangle, you get another window that pops up that has more information about the object."
For example, one box in the photography group represents pictures of President John F. Kennedy by famed portrait artist Richard Avedon. At the same time, lines drawn on the screen link those photos to other categories - art, people and politics - and year 1961 is highlighted on the time scale at the top of the screen.
MacARTHUR: "One of the really nice things about this interface is that it packs a lot of functionality and a lot of information into a relatively small space."
Although the concept works well enough for hundreds of museum objects, Matt MacArthur admits the concept would not scale up effectively to represent the millions of objects in the collection of the Smithsonian American History Museum.
MacARTHUR: "That's one of its limitations -- it's not scalable, probably. But I would say if you were going to double the amount of objects represented here, you'd really be pushing what could be done with this particular interface. So it wouldn't scale up to the three million or so objects at the museum. But as a browsing tool, it seems to work well for that."
History Wired is one of the most innovative ways of displaying information that we've found online. There are several other ways to access the information that we didn't have time to mention. You'll probably want a broadband connection for this, and you definitely will need to have java installed - but it's a free add-on for your browser if you don't have it already. Surf on over to historywired.si.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Wonderful World (Sam Cooke)
It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Malaria remains one of the world's worst medical threats. According to the World Health Organization, malaria kills more than a million people each year, with another 300 million acute cases, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the dead are young children.
There are effective drugs to treat malaria, which is caused by a parasite spread by mosquitoes. But some older drugs are no longer effective, and the latest drugs are much more expensive.
The WHO generally recommends one of the new drugs, given together with other medicines in what is called ACT, or artemisinin combination therapy.
But new research published this week indicates that some older, cheaper medicines may work just as well.
ROSENTHAL: "In summary we found that the other inexpensive regimen, amodiaquine plus SP, performed at least as well as the more expensive ACT regimen, and actually performed somewhat better at two of the sites."
Phil Rosenthal of the University of California - San Francisco. In studies involving more than 2,000 patients in Uganda, Dr. Rosenthal said it's not that artemisinin-based ACT treatment didn't work ...
ROSENTHAL: "The surprise isn't that ACT performed poorly, it's that amodiaquine SP -- the non-ACT regimen -- performed very well."
The good results from the amodiaquine - SP combination in this study is explained in part by how the researchers measured success. Because malaria re-infection is so common, they looked at the success of a treatment in keeping the patient malaria-free, not just in curing the existing infection.
ROSENTHAL:"And it so happens that [the] non-ACT regimen that we studied, amodiaquine plus SP, has a better effect at preventing a second infection because the drugs are rather long-acting. They stay in your bloodstream for a long time after treatment."
The third treatment they studied - chloroqine - was the drug of choice for many years, but Phil Rosenthal says the malaria parasite has developed resistance to it. Nevertheless, it is still in use because it's so cheap.
ROSENTHAL:"Most people are still being treated with chloroquine, which is really a horrible situation. Chloroquin is probably very close to placebo in most of Africa. That is clearly sub-optimal, that we're relying on such a poorly effective drug."
There has been resistance to using artemisinin-based therapy because of the cost. But the amodiaquine-SP combination, which the researchers found can provide a similar level of protection, is a lot cheaper. More expensive than chloroquine, to be sure, but about 75-percent less than the artemisinin-based ACTs.
Findings of the study on malaria treatments in Uganda, which was led by Phil Rosenthal's colleague Grant Dorsey, are published in the open access journal PLoS Medicine.
Open access means the articles are free to read. The high cost of subscriptions to some biomedical journals has become an issue, and in an e-mail from Uganda, Dr. Dorsey wrote, "it is frustrating that people from resource poor settings may not have access to up-to-date medical literature without paying expensive subscription fees." And he says he is "frequently approached by African scientists trying to gain access to full text articles," but they can't read about the latest research unless they pay for it.
Childhood immunization rates in the United States continue to rise. According to a just-released survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 81 percent of American children have been immunized with the recommended series of childhood vaccines. That still leaves one child out of five not getting recommended vaccinations. And, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, other segments of the population lag far behind.
SKIRBLE: Sophie Starcevic is a healthy athletic teenager. At least she is now. A year ago, the 16-year old developed a bad cough. It sounded and felt like a terrible chest cold, kept her up at night and made her vomit. No one - not even her mother Monika Burke - suspected it was pertussis … commonly known as whooping cough.
BURKE: "As a registered nurse I am aware of the importance of vaccination and made sure my children were fully vaccinated. I had never heard of anyone getting pertussis."
SKIRBLE: Not until her daughter was diagnosed with the disease. Sophie - treated with antibiotics - has fully recovered. However, other young people remain at risk. In 2004 there were 19,000 cases of whooping cough. That was nearly double the number from the year before.
Only after she got sick did Sophie's family learn that immunity to pertussis wears off after five to ten years. The good news is that a booster shot for whooping cough was recently approved for adolescents. Sophie and her mother offer this advice:
SOPHIE BURKE: I am really working and promoting the vaccination because it can be prevented.
MONIKA BURKE: And, I am making sure to encourage the parents of her school mates and her social circle to tell them that the vaccine is available and that this vaccine is available and [tell them] that [if] it happened to Sophie and it can happen to you.
SKIRBLE: And it can happen with other common, widespread - and preventable - diseases. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans either die or suffer dramatic health effects from influenza, pneumococcal disease and hepatitis B.
David Neumann heads the Partnership for Prevention, an organization that promotes immunization for treatable diseases. He says while childhood vaccination rates in the United States have climbed to an all-time high, the picture is much different for adults.
NEUMANN: "For example, at best we immunize 70 percent of adults 65 years and older against influenza each year. The percent of seniors receiving the pneumococcal vaccine are even lower. Younger adults are at high risk for influenza and its complications, particularly individuals who suffer from heart, lung and liver disease [and] who have diabetes. We don't do a very good job in reaching those people. Only about 37 percent of adults in the high risk group between the ages of 50 and 64 receive an influenza vaccine on an annual basis despite being in those high risk groups."
SKIRBLE: Mr. Neumann urges the adoption of measures that have worked to raise immunization rates among children. The Partnership for Prevention calls for more public funds for getting vaccines to uninsured adults, collaboration among health agencies and educational programs that raise awareness about the importance of immunization.
NEUMANN: "My favorite ways of expressing that is that many of us in the baby boom generation think that we are immortal and we do well for twenty or thirty years and then, boom, we end up with chest pain. We go to see a cardiologist. A cardiologist is going to take care of your cardiac issues, but isn't even going to think about influenza immunization or pneumococcal, even if you are in a high-risk group. So there is a lot of provider education that we need to do as well."
SKIRBLE: Efforts like these have the full support of Stephen Cochi, Acting Director of the National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, he cautions that misinformation can quickly erode an immunization campaign. Such was the case in Northern Nigeria in 2003. Rumors circulated that the polio vaccine was linked to AIDS and reproductive disorders.
COCHI: "There was an interruption of vaccination in Northern Nigeria for an entire year. The poliovirus spread from sub-Saharan Africa from West to East. Thousands of Africa children and Asian children became paralyzed as a result of this unfortunate debacle. The virus spread across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and Yemen and then distantly to Indonesia where there is still a polio outbreak going on."
SKIRBLE: Despite that setback, Mr. Cochi - a former pediatrician - believes that universal vaccination is an achievable goal. A broad-based public private partnership has initiated a campaign to vaccinate 90 percent of the world's children by 2015, protecting them from the most common preventable childhood diseases. But Stephen Cochi and other public health experts say this is not enough. They'd like to see immunization benefits extended to people of all ages. I'm Rosanne Skirble
MUSIC: Our World theme
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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 voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.