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Our World Transcript — September 17, 2005


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

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The health consequences of Hurricane Katrina ... The environmental factors that worsened its effects ... And the dangerous disease that's attacking wheat crops in East Africa.

BORLAUG: In the biological world there's mutations going on in pathogens. And it's true of wheat diseases, [or] any crop diseases...

Those stories, gizmos on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Residents of New Orleans and elsewhere on the U.S. Gulf Coast are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The flooding and evacuation were especially difficult for those who were already ill, or at risk of poor health. The disaster also created tremendous new challenges for health professionals in surrounding areas. VOAs Adam Phillips reports from Baton Rouge, where many of the evacuees went.

PHILLIPS: It is nine thirty in the evening at the Centroplex, a Baton Rouge convention center the American Red Cross has converted into an emergency shelter for over five thousand Katrina evacuees. Inside its sprawling makeshift infirmary, I asked John Saffello, a volunteer medic from California what kind of health problems he's been seeing most often.

SAFFELO: "We're seeing a lot of diabetic issues, people who were forced out of their homes without insulin. We re seeing some skin infections, lacerations that are still being debried [irrigated] and treated, various illnesses form upper respiratory infections to diarrhea, some stomach related issues --things like that.

PHILLIPS: New Orleanians suffering from chronic illnesses like cancer who were forced to evacuate because of Katrina found the experience especially difficult, physically and psychologically. The Louisiana and Baton Rouge chapters of the American Cancer Society have been running an extensive campaign to locate displaced patients and connect them with doctors like Patrick Stagg. The Baton Rouge oncologist has taken on ten new cancer patients from the New Orleans area.

STAGG: "Basically we've seen people in the middle of their treatment be disrupted and have to find care urgently. Some of them have been quite sick, some of them in the middle of very aggressive treatment, and they were brought to the hospital immediately, some by of the shelter. And patients have just been inundating the system from every direction you could think of."

PHILLIPS: Doctor Stagg says that cancer treatment is a complex disease to understand and treat properly, but that Katrina has made the task much more challenging —

STAGG: "… Because we have to scurry to catch up on what happened because we don't always have records. Some have complete records. Some have nothing. To some extent we are trained to take care of confused chaotic situations and make sense of them. That is sort of what the doctor is supposed to do -- put the puzzle together."

Cancer patient Rosalind Breaux had been undergoing radiation therapy over several weeks at New Orleans' Charity Hospital when Katrina hit. The hospital was flooded, then closed. Her medical records were destroyed.

BREUX: "So I was part of the system that is now in chaos."

PHILLIPS: Fortunately, the American Cancer Society was able to learn of Ms. Breaux's predicament. It found her in the Baton Rouge shelter where she was staying and put her in touch with Dr. Stagg.

The Katrina catastrophe has also posed an enormous challenge to people's mental health, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has deployed field workers to ensure that mentally ill evacuees are identified, then kept current with their medication and monitored.

Dr. Frederick Cerise, the department's director, is also concerned for those who have been traumatized by what they've been through since the storm hit August 29.

CERISE: "… And that is going to exist on a number of layers. First and foremost, you've got the people who have responded to the crisis, and the things they were dealing with. Crowds of people, people that were dying. We have people that were out in the fields seeing bodies and things like that who have been traumatized. Families that have lost people. We do have teams out there working with them to address those needs."

PHILLIPS: The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina also poses significant health risks for the general public. For example, drinking water in New Orleans has been contaminated by the floodwaters, and by oil spills and household poisons seeping into the ground from people's flooded homes.

Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus have been found breeding in the stagnant pools. Over seventy five cases of the disease have already been reported. The state has begun aerial spraying throughout the region to kill the pests before they become an even more serious health threat. For Our World, this is Adam Phillips reporting from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


Katrina was one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the United States, and that makes it apparently part of a trend.

A new paper in the journal "Science" says the number of super-strong hurricanes and their Pacific equivalent, typhoons, has doubled in the past 35 years.

Using satellite data, the researchers found that the number of these storms actually went down in most areas, but the storms that did form lasted longer and were more powerful.

Many people have asked if the ferocity of Katrina is a result of global warming. While its hard to link one particular storm to long term climate change, another scientist, Kevin Trenberth of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, says global warming is responsible for increases in sea surface temperatures, which power tropical cyclones.

TRENBERTH: "As that moisture condenses and forms precipitation, rainfall, then it releases that heat back into the atmosphere. And so there are tremendous rainfalls associated with these storms. In the case of Katrina, for instance, just north of New Orleans, there was over 12 inches [30 centimeters] of rainfall and over a swath of over a hundred miles [160 kilometers] all around New Orleans there was over eight inches [20 centimeters] of rainfall. And so, this contributes substantially to the flooding."

Whether warmer temperatures are the result of human activity, however, is a question the new study did not address.

There is evidence that at least one form of human activity -- in this case, coastal development -- can make a difference in the amount of damage done when a powerful storm like Katrina comes ashore. In the area around New Orleans, studies have warned for years that the Gulf Coast states were at increasing risk of a catastrophic natural disaster. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: In 1993 Gerald Galloway headed a White House task force to study the floods that had inundated the American Midwest that year. The report went beyond the $12 billion disaster along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and focused on the vulnerability of people and property in floodplains nationwide. It outlined the importance of a coordinated response among state, local and federal officials and the private sector, and stressed the need to protect and preserve the environment.

Mr. Galloway - now a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland - says less than half of the recommendations were acted upon.

GALLOWAY: Many of the recommendations went into the 'too hard box' and floated in a bureaucratic malaise over the years until the memory of the flood floated away. And I will tell you that is the challenge because the half-life of memory of a flood is very short. And even with something as disastrous as the Mississippi or New Orleans flood, it won't be long until people have let it slip off of their radar screens.

SKIRBLE: Mr. Galloway and his team documented the widespread failure to discourage development in floodplains, provide more protection for existing population centers, and protect critical facilities such as hospitals, water treatment plants and fire stations. The study recommended strengthening levees, floodwalls and dams, and encouraging voluntary measures such flood proofing and relocation of homes and businesses. Mr. Galloway says the report also urged the President to revise the outdated Principles and Guidelines for federal water projects.

GALLOWAY: "… which is a 22 year old document signed by President Reagan that establishes national economic development as the sole objective of water resource development. It does not include a focus on the social and environmental costs. And, if we learned one thing from New Orleans, and we learned the same thing from the Mississippi flood, that the social costs of such a flood in terms of family disruption, in terms of business collapse is tremendous and our 'Principles and Guidelines' need to reflect that. We recommended that environmental quality (including these social goals) be given co-equal status with national economic development.

SKIRBLE: The Galloway report recognized the critical need to protect wetlands, which help contain rainwater and act as a natural barrier against storm surges. Since 1930, development along the Gulf coast has cost Louisiana 49,000 square kilometers of wetland, a loss that continues at the rate of 62 square kilometers per year.

Mark Davis is Executive Director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. He says people are at greater risk from extreme weather events when natural protections - like wetlands and barrier islands - are destroyed. He says the payoff for investment in levees and coastline protection is economic resilience.

DAVIS: "We may be beginning to clean up New Orleans and turn on the lights, but you just have to look at what's happening in Lake Pontchartrain and with the loss of additional storm buffers that it is not just a question of the ecological implications, we now have thousands of fishers and farmers out of work. You are essentially loosing the fabric of communities and an economy and the ripple effects are not going to stop anytime real soon."

SKIRBLE: New Orleans is not an isolated case of a city unprepared for disaster. The University of Maryland's Gerald Galloway says some 20,000 communities across the United States are vulnerable, including major populations centers.

GALLOWAY: "Portland, St. Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, Sacramento, Baton Rouge, Chicago and Kansas City are a few."

SKIRBLE: New Orleans is just the latest victim. Professor Galloway says Hurricane Katrina is a wake-up call for the public and private sectors to jointly enact plans that can mitigate the social hardship, environmental damage and economic impact of any future natural disaster. I'm Rosanne Skirble.


MUSIC: "That's a Plenty"

New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt, and you're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.


Time again for Our World's Website of the Week. The world of technology products is so vast, so fast-moving, that it's hard to keep up. You really need an expert guide to spot the next great thing, and separate the cool from the crud. And we have just the website that can help.

BIGGS: "Gizmodo.com is a website dedicated to all the gadgets and all the crazy new things that are coming out, basically every day. We're talking about cell phones. We're talking about computers. We're talking about laptops, brand-new PDAs, little hand-held devices, GPS devices."

John Biggs is news editor at Gizmodo.com, which calls itself the "gadgets weblog."

Every day, Mr. Biggs and his colleagues sort through press releases, 100 or so suggestions e-mailed by readers, and scour the Internet for information about the latest electronic devices. They range from the practical to the silly, from must-haves to no-thanks, and each gets a short paragraph or two in typical blog style.

Among the products discussed on Gizmodo this week were an $8,000 high-definition camcorder from Canon, an upcoming high-style mobile phone from a partnership between South Korea's Samsung and Denmark's Bang & Olufsen; a preview of the upcoming Nintendo Gameboy Micro; and ... a remote-control toy forklift truck.

BIGGS: "Well, we try to have fun with this. A lot of the websites and a lot of the magazines try to treat this as an IT [information technology] or sort of a high-tech world that a lot of people don't have access to. But our goal is to give everyone equal access to this world, try to explain it in a fun, interesting way, and add a quirkiness that's basically our own to every single post that we do."

Gizmodo.com is an advertiser-supported site, but John Biggs stresses that the sponsors don't influence the reviews, which he says can sometimes be brutally honest.

BIGGS: "Well, that's one of the issues with technology. A lot of the things that come out are basically retreads of the same thing, and we try to call companies on that."

Gizmodo is a busy site, with about a quarter-million visitors a day -- they actually post real time site traffic stats, thanks to a free service called sitemeter.com. So for an opinionated review of the latest technology tools and toys, surf on over to Gizmodo.com, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

From little Gizmodo now to giant Google. The Internet search engine powerhouse this week launched a new service aimed at searching blogs, the new web form that has morphed from a simple online diary to a serious player in the arts, commentary and political analysis -- and, some believe, even journalism.

Chris Sherman, senior editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, says Google's entry into blog searching is significant.

SHERMAN: "That Google is actually finally getting into blog search is very telling, because they believe it's clearly a phenomenon that's got legs. It's also significant because they're the first major search engine to really give us full-blown blog search."

Chris Sherman says indexing blogs is more challenging than traditional websites. Blogs are updated more frequently, and their content can go stale more quickly. As usual with new products, Google's blog search is labeled a beta, or test version.

SHERMAN: "Right now, I think the weakest part of it is that their definition of what they're searching is not clear. And that's because we don't really have, as a society, a clear definition of what a blog is."

If you're a little vague on what a blog is, one way to start is to point your browser to blogsearch.google.com, and search for a topic that interests you. The address again — blogsearch.google.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

New research from New Zealand confirms what you may have already suspected ... that children who spend a lot of time watching television are more likely to be fat -- more precisely, to have a higher body-mass index, a measure of obesity.

The study comes from University of Otago in New Zealand, where Bob Hancox and a colleague analyzed data on almost 1,000 local children.

HANCOX: "And what we found was, watching TV during childhood was quite a good predictor of whether they were overweight or had a raised body mass index."

Statistically, Dr. Hancox admits the link between television viewing and obesity isn't very strong --

HANCOX: "But it was definitely there, and in fact it was actually quite a bit stronger than the association you normally find between diet and obesity, and for that matter between physical exercise and obesity."

Bob Hancox says parents have some responsibility here, but he says the larger society must also get some of the blame.

HANCOX: "Children come home from school and they want to watch the same programs that all of their school friends are watching. It's very hard for parents to resist that sort of pressure. It's also very hard for the parents to say, no, you must go outside and play, if all their friends that they would play with are actually inside watching television."

Childhood obesity has been a problem in industrialized countries for some time, and it's starting to show up now in developing countries, too. Although he studied TV viewing in particular, Dr. Bob Hancox says the same risk of obesity would probably apply to sedentary activities like surfing the Internet or playing computer games.


Finally, today, biologists are warning that the resurgence of a plant disease in East Africa could destroy 10-percent of the world's wheat crops. "Wheat rust," as it's known, could seriously affect Africans, many of whom are already experiencing food shortages because of drought. Raymond Thibodeaux has more from VOA's East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

THIBODEAUX: The world's most feared wheat disease is back: Puccinia graminis, also known as wheat rust or wheat rot, is a fast-spreading, wind-borne fungus that shrivels wheat stems so that they crumple over and die in the field. It's the ebola virus for wheat.

Wheat rust caused huge grain losses in North America and famines in Asia in the first half of the 20th century. After a 50-year hiatus, it resurfaced in Uganda in 1999 and within three years spread to Kenya and Ethiopia, choking off tens of thousands of hectares of wheat crops.

Plant scientists are now raising the alarm that the disease, if unchecked, could spread to other parts of eastern Africa, which produces about 10-percent of the world's supply of wheat.

U.S. botanist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug helped develop resistant wheat varieties 50 years ago. Now, at 91 years old, he is leading the charge against the resurgence of this potentially devastating blight.

He says that wheat-rust fungus is like bacteria in that it protects itself by building up immunities to chemicals meant to kill it. The fungicides used 50 years ago, no longer work today.

Mr. Borlaug speaks to VOA by telephone from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

BORLAUG: "It's been 50 years without an epidemic, but in the biological world there are mutations and hybridizations going on in pathogens. And it's true of wheat diseases, [or] any crop diseases. When penicillin first came out as an antibiotic, it controlled many diseases. But little by little it lost its effectiveness. This was because of changes in the microorganisms themselves to build up resistance."

THIBODEAUX: Wheat, he says, is the world's most important cereal.

BORLAUG: "Wheat, until the last 15 years, was the number one cereal in total tonnage produced. But in the case of maize a large part of it is used for animal feed."

THIBODEAUX: More than 60 million tons of wheat is at risk of the wheat rot, or about nine billion U.S. dollars worth of grain, according to a report issued late last week by the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement.

East African farmers are desperately searching for wheat varieties that can withstand the fungus, says Mariam Kinyua, a director for Kenya's Agricultural Research Institute. She is charged with developing those fungus-resistant wheat varieties.

KINYUA: "It's only time. We can't tell how long it will take, but for sure it will spread -- there's no question about that. It's not only spreading in East Africa, it stands to spread globally."

THIBODEAUX: In Kenya, large-scale wheat farmers grow most of the country's wheat, and they have been spraying fungicide on their crops three times a year to control the blight, says Ms. Kinyua. But most small-scale farmers can't afford to spray, she says.

KINYUA: "The small-scale farmers stand to lose a lot. The large-scale farmers of course also stand to lose in that they have to spray up to three times, and spraying of the fungicide is at a cost."

THIBODEAUX: The cost of each spraying of fungicide is about 90 dollars per hectare, a huge expense for the region's wheat farmers.

A Global Rust Initiative has been set up in Nairobi to monitor progress of the disease and identify and breed new rust-resistant types of wheat.

Scientists in Ethiopia and Kenya, testing thousands of wheat varieties, are confident that they can identify at least one that can resist the wheat rust by the end of November.

In the meantime, many of East Africa's small-scale farmers are forced to wait it out, hoping that the wheat rust will not damage too much of their harvest. Raymond Thibodeaux for VOA News, Nairobi.


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Ask us a science question … tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. 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.

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