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Our World Transcript — October 15, 2005

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

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A possible influenza pandemic ahead if the avian flu virus mutates ... a possible end of the line for polio ... and living inside a solar house

SPEVAK: "The walls are light colored which helps reflect light, so we don't need as many lights on. And the hot water clearly has paid for itself probably two or three times over by now."

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

Top public health experts sounded a warning this week about the possibility of a bird flu pandemic.

The dangerous avian flu has infected birds in a number of Asian countries, and just this week, was confirmed in Turkey. Human infections have been relatively rare so far — 117 cases, according to the World Health Organization, with 60 deaths — half of those infected. So far, the human victims have gotten the disease from direct contact with birds.

But at a briefing for Congressional staff on Capitol Hill, Dr. Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic said two of the three conditions are in place for a global flu epidemic, or pandemic. We already have a new virus for which we don't have immunity ... and the virus can sicken humans.

POLAND: "The remaining condition is for this virus to develop the ability to be easily transmitted from one human to another to another. When this happens, time will be described for those left living as 'before' and 'after' the pandemic."

Scientists warn that the virus could mutate, giving it the ability to be spread from human-to-human. Dr. Tara O'Toole of the University of Pittsburgh stressed the urgency of the threat.

O'TOOLE: "What we are talking about is not just another health issue. It is a nation-busting event."

A "nation-busting" event.

The best comparison to the potential threat is probably the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed some 20 million people worldwide. In the U.S. it was about 675,000. Today, though, total populations are at least three times larger, so a similar virus might be expected to kill three times as many people —

O'TOOLE: "But these numbers were for a virus that had a mortality rate of one or two percent, not the mortality rate of 40 to 50 percent that we're seeing with today's flu virus."

A global epidemic of deadly flu could bring national economies to standstill. Dr. Constance Hanna, medical director at Honeywell Corporation, described a possible scenario.

HANNA: "Imagine you're operating a business and 20-30 percent of your employees don't show up to work. Others are not coming to work because they either have to stay home and care for sick family members or schools are closed, so children need caretakers at home to take care of children. Transportation systems are curtailed or shut down. And employees who may be trying to get to work can't get there because of transportation issues. And as a result of transportation issues, you can't ship product, nor can you receive critical components you need to build your products. In addition to that, critical infrastructure will or may fail — food, water, power, gas, electricity."

Of course, unlike 1918, today we have modern drugs and vaccines. But that may not save us, says Jeffrey Levi of George Washington University, if we don't have the money and organization behind it.

LEVI: "It requires a major investment, however, to increase our production capacity, to increase the speed with which we can get vaccine into production, and finally to get those vaccines out into people's arms. We also need antivirals. We're not necessarily going to get a vaccine up and running in time. We need an antiviral stockpile. We need it to be built. And we can't just stockpile them. We have to have a method of distributing them."

Dr. Levi says preparing for a flu pandemic in the U.S. alone could cost up to $8 bllion. He also stressed the need to support the World Health Organization, which is keeping tabs on the spread of avian flu. And he urged creation of what news reports inevitably called a "bird flu czar."

LEVI: "We need to make sure that at the federal level we have clear leadership, government-wide. That there's a single point person who's ultimately responsible and accountable for our pandemic preparedness.

In an hour and a half, the public health experts painted a pretty bleak picture of what could happen if the avian flu virus known as H5N1 mutates so that it can be passed from human to human. But Shelley Hearne, of the group Trust for America's Health, said the intention is not to induce fear.

HEARNE: "This isn't about panic. This is about preparedness. Let's take this opportunity while we have a clear and present danger in front of us."

Meanwhile, as we've reported, the virus continues to spread. On Thursday European Union officials confirmed the disease in has been identified in poultry in Turkey, apparently spread by migrating birds.

But there is some positive news on the medical front: The World Health Organization says polio could be finished within the next six months everywhere, except in Nigeria. Lisa Schlein reports that WHO Experts meeting in Geneva recommend new outbreaks of polio be declared an international health emergency to prevent its further spread.

SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization acknowledges it may miss the original target date of eradicating polio throughout the world by the end of this year. But, it says it is optimistic that the crippling disease is nearing its end thanks to new, more effective tools.

The chairman of the Advisory Committee on Polio Eradication, Steve Cochi, says a new polio vaccine is proving to be more effective in building up immunity against polio and stopping its spread, than the traditional vaccine.

COCHI: "So, all the tools are now in place we believe to rapidly finish polio eradication. It is now up to individual countries to effectively utilize these new available tools. And, no reason why polio should exist anywhere in the world by the end of next year."

SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization finds synchronized immunization campaigns in 23 West and Central African countries have succeeded in eliminating polio in all countries with the exception of Nigeria.

Two years ago, several Muslim States in northern Nigeria stopped immunizing children against polio, fearing the vaccine was contaminated. Subsequently, the virus traveled to neighboring countries, re-infecting 18 previously polio-free countries.

While polio now is under control in these countries, Dr. Cochi says Nigeria remains the single greatest risk to polio eradication at present.

COCHI: "This is due to the very high disease burden. And there has been a much slower than expected decline in new polio cases this year in Nigeria. Because of this the Advisory Committee concludes it will take at least a further 12 months to finish polio eradication in Nigeria."

SCHLEIN: Dr. Cochi says countries that detect a new case of polio must respond rapidly and use the new vaccine. He says Yemen did this and the disease now is ending there. By contrast, he says Indonesia delayed its nationwide immunization campaigns and used the old vaccine.

COCHI: "The result is the epidemic continues to expand in Indonesia and has not come completely under control yet. So, I think that is a lesson for the future and for all countries who are at risk of importation of polio virus."

SCHLEIN: The Advisory Committee recommends that any outbreak of polio in a country free of the disease should be declared a public health emergency. This would force that country to respond rapidly. Lisa Schlein for VOA News, Geneva.

MUSIC: "Jack's Jump" (Frank Frost)

Film critic Roger Ebert said, "Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly."

Seems like a good way to introduce our Website of the Week, Wikiquote-dot-org, an online reference for quotations including that one and thousands of others in about 30 languages.

Wikiquote is a sister site to the better-known online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which we featured on this show last year. Both sites are written and edited solely by a community of volunteers, and anyone can contribute.

WALES: "Wikiquote is a collection of quotations from famous people, and it's just a collaborative effort to gather all these kinds of quotes."

Site founder Jimmy Wales says that, by its nature, Wikiquote tends to be strong in areas that its users are passionate about, which might be considered a weakness.

WALES: "We're always looking at, how can we be more inclusive. How can we bring more people in who are interested in different topics. At the same time, I think it's a feature, that by letting the contributors pursue whatever they find interesting or they're passionate about, that's where you get the really good quality work."

Like Wikipedia and other websites where content is created and edited by users, the question is always, 'how reliable is the information?' Actually, Jimmy Wales says the system of user-editing provides a mechanism for correcting the sorts of errors and mis-attributions that he says are perpetuated by other websites offering quotations.

WALES: "There's really not much of a feedback mechanism on most of those site. So with Wikiquote it's easy for the community to come in and self-correct and find quotes that are wrong and actually document that the quote is well-known but wrong."

Find just the right quotation at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "The 'In' Crowd" (Ramsey Lewis Trio)

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Two new studies from Scandinavia indicate middle age people who do strenuous physical activity twice a week cut their risk of Alzheimer's Disease in half, and also — those who are obese are at higher risk for dementia.

Both studies involved about 14-hundred people from Finland who have been in a study of aging for decades, so dementia today can be traced back to factors first noted in their 40s and 50s. Lead researcher Miia Kivipelto found that obesity doubled the risk for Alzheimer's Disease, and there was a similar risk for people with a sedentary lifestyle.

KIVIPELTO: "People who were active at midlife had something like 50-60 percent lower risk for dementia and Alzheimer's Disease later in life, and this is quite [a] big reduction in the risk, I would say."

The study found an association between these lifestyle factors and dementia, not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship.
Vigorous exercise by itself, for example, may not reduce the risk of dementia, but Dr. Kivipelto says other researchers have some tantalizing theories based on their studies.

KIVIPELTO: "Physical activity may directly influence the brain. It may stimulate the blood flow. It may in general stimulate various signalling systems in the brain, and also increase the brain's plasticity, and I think these are very interesting findings, so it really seems that there are more direct mechanisms as well."

Dr. Kivipelto says this longitudinal study also showed impacts on the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease from high total cholesterol and high blood pressure. And the effects of each risk factor were cumulative. So an obese person with high blood pressure and high cholesterol would actually have six times the risk of someone of normal weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.

A lack of exercise and obsesity are, of course, linked, and there is plenty of evidence that there are health benefits to losing weight and getting regular exercise, regardless of the effect on future brain disease. But Miia Kivipelto says its understandable that some people just don't find the time to exercise.

KIVIPELTO: "It's not always easy to find time, and I think this is quite [a] common problem nowadays. We are quite busy. We are sitting in our offices. We are driving cars. So we really need to take the time for the exercise."

The two studies were published this month — the exercise article appeared in the Lancet Neurology journal, and the obesity article in the Archives of Neurology.

The bright lights of New York's famous skyscrapers have always been a draw for visitors, but they are a dangerous lure for the millions of birds that pass through the Big Apple on their migrations. Now scientists and advocates are trying to do something about it. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: New York City may be the very definition of a man-made environment, but the place is also teeming with nature. For example, Manhattan lies directly in the flight path of hundreds of thousands of birds as they migrate south in the autumn and north in the spring, and some uninhabited spots of land on New York's waterways are breeding grounds for scores of wild bird species.

However, according to Daniel Klem, a bird specialist at Muhlenburg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the concrete and glass canyons of New York and other cities pose a danger to birds, especially when cloudy nights force them to fly low.

KLEM: "Short of habitat destruction, probably the most serious human-related threat for birds is sheet glass in our environment simply because they act as if they don't see it. They are not capable of interpreting clear or reflective glass as a barrier to avoid. And they act as if they are attempting to reach habitat that is seen either on the other side of clear glass or mirrored or reflected in tinted panes. So they are deceived."

PHILLIPS: Birds are usually drawn to skyscrapers in the first place because of their exterior decorative lights and office lighting, says Yigal Gelb of the New York City Audubon Society, an organization dedicated to protecting birds and other wildlife.

GELB: "They are programmed over millions of years to pick up certain cues in the environment, like maybe stars or the moon, that probably has to do with their navigational system. There have never been lights lighting up the skies like we have today. So in a very, very short time period relative to their evolution all these new sources of light came up, and their navigational system, which is ancient, is kind of confused.

PHILLIPS: Yigal Gelb says that efforts are being made to deal with the problem. One is the New York City Audubon Society's "Lights Out New York" program, in which the owners and managers of buildings over 40 stories high are encouraged to help at night in two ways.

GELB: "One is to dim the decorative lights that are on the towers, or on the skyscrapers. The other is we're asking people to either dim the office lights or use blinds so that the buildings become darker. However, to put it in context you know, though, the whole Eastern Seaboard is lit up. So this is just the beginning of a much broader initiative."

PHILLIPS: Researchers are also trying to invent new kinds of glass that will keep birds safe. One product currently in development is particularly promising. Birds can see ultraviolet light that humans cannot. This glass will reflect patterns ultraviolet light that will warn away birds, while retaining the transparency that humans value. I'm Adam Phillips in New York.

On the national mall here in Washington right now, student teams from 18 universities across North America and Europe are competing to build economical, comfortable and attractive solar houses. Although the Solar Decathlon, as it's called, is a contest, the real purpose is to increase interest in solar energy — both among students and the general public.

Solar Decathlon houses are for show, but houses on the National Solar Tour are for real — real houses where real people live ... people who have decided to "go solar." While most energy consumed worldwide comes from conventional sources, last year solar energy surpassed wind power as the world's fastest growing alternative energy source. VOA's Rosanne Skirble takes us to one house that incorporates solar power into its design.

SKIRBLE: Twenty-five years ago, Michael and Virginia Spevak built a new home on an empty lot in Washington. They wanted a house that got its energy from the sun. Mrs. Spevak says the open floor plan promotes natural heating and cooling.

SPEVAK: The floor is dark quarry tile, which helps the heat from the sun in the winter and it reflects back into the house at night. The walls are light colored which helps reflect light, so we don't need as many lights on. The windows are mostly on the south and there is a two-foot (0.6 meter) overhang so that when the sky is high in the sky in the summer the house is shaded by the overhang.

SKIRBLE: Other features include bookcases and quilts against the walls to provide added insulation. The Spevaks also have a solar water heater and they recently purchased photovoltaic panels for their roof. The house is connected to the local electric grid, but the family gets a credit from the power company for the energy they produce.

SPEVAK: The hot water clearly has paid for itself probably two or three times over by now. And, the photovoltaics we didn't really expect to get the payback, but we decided that it was worth it to decrease the carbon dioxide and all the other things that it would be worth it.

SKIRBLE: Mrs. Spevak says their commitment to energy efficiency has not meant a major change in their life-style.

SPEVAK: "You have a lot of choices when you try and have a more energy efficient house. You can have a house that basically does everything itself and you don't even know that you have a house any different from any other house. We decided that we didn't mind doing a few simple things, but even if we did nothing and someone moved into this house they could do nothing and it would be more energy efficient than most houses, but there are things that you can do to make it work even better."

SKIRBLE: While the Spevak house is the exception rather than the rule among American homes, some state and local jurisdictions offer grants and tax incentives to homeowners for the purchase of renewable or energy-efficient products. More than 20 states require utility companies to get a portion of their electricity from renewable sources.

But Peter Lowenthal says that is not enough. He heads the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, a local sponsor of the 2005 Solar Home and Building Tour. While he applauds the solar tax credit in the new energy bill, he says the law falls short of what the solar industry needs to grow a market for its products.

LOWENTHAL: Unfortunately the credit only lasts for two years. Of all the tax credits that were passed in the energy bill hnfortunately ours [the solar power industry's] are short lived. So we have a significant battle to try to extend them for more than five years because for the business community to go into investing into developing the market and ramping up manufacturing and establishing dealer networks across the country is an expensive process and for a two-year window that is not a very good choice.

SKIRBLE: Mr. Lowenthal says greater price incentives and increased consumer awareness about energy saving alternatives will help lower the nation's power bill and reduce its dependency on fossil fuels that pollute the environment. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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 Or the postal address is —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. 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.