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Our World Transcript — 5 August 2006


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 psychological scars of a natural disaster ... obstacles to sounding the tsunami warning ... and a shortcut to recovery for tuberculosis patients ...

SALOMON: "If we get them to the finish line in two months instead of six months, we're likely to see more patients cured, fewer patients that can pass on the infection to others.

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

In December 2004, a massive tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries, killing more than 200,000 people.

Many of the survivors were traumatized by the catastrophe and its aftermath, and a new study conducted in Thailand and published this week has for the first time attempted to quantify the mental health problems afflicting these survivors.

In interviews with hundreds of adults and children who lived through the tsunami, the researchers found significant evidence of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. I spoke with researcher Frits Van Griensven in Bangkok, Thailand, where he is part of a collaborative project involving the Thai Ministry of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

VAN GRIENSVEN: "Basically what we found in our survey were higher levels of mental health problems in people affected by the tsunami disaster, in a sense that those who lived closer to the sea or closer to where the disaster actually happened had higher levels of mental health problems than those who were more distant."

As many as 13 percent of the children showed signs of PTSD, for example. Among adults, as many as 37 percent reported symptoms of anxiety.

Van Griensven says his team identified a key risk factor in many of these mental health problems.

VAN GRIENSVEN: "From our research we know that loss of livelihood is the strongest predictor of having mental health problems. So if you lose your house, your boat, your work — you are at much more higher risk to develop post-disaster mental health problems or anxiety and depression."

The study of tsunami survivors, which was published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found lower rates of PTSD than were seen in previous studies in postwar Kosovo and Afghanistan. Van Griensven says that could be explained in part by the Thais' Buddhist-based belief system, which provides them with a framework for making sense out of a random disaster.

VAN GRIENSVEN: "A lot of people that I talked to in the camps or in the area, they felt that the sea was being over-exploited, and they were taking so much out of the sea that the sea was no longer able to cope with it. And so it had to react to it. For them, that was then the reason why this happened to them. And that's also something that people can understand." Q: "It wasn't just a random event, in other words." "No, no, in their belief system this was not just like a random event. It was the revenge of the spirits of the sea."

There has been relatively little study of the psychological impacts of disasters for reasons including the difficulty of organizing a research program on short notice in chaotic, post-disaster conditions. Although it's a matter of common sense that survivors would be depressed or anxious, Frits Van Griensven points out that having more detailed, quantitative information is key to an effective response.

VAN GRIENSVEN: "You can imagine post-disaster there is a lot of chaos, there is not a lot of coordination, and there [are] people lost and missing, people going through grief. So systematically assessing the mental health problems of these people is a challenge. So in the first place, to describe them, to know what they are and to what extent they exist, that's needed before we can move on to intervention and programs for these people."

There's no way to prevent tsunamis, but given the consequences — psychological and otherwise — the next best thing is to give people living in vulnerable areas as much advance warning as possible.

Countries rimming the Indian Ocean are making progress towards a regional warning and alert center, but there are cultural and political obstacles, more than technical roadblocks, to completing an effective system that can deliver a timely warning of an impending tsunami.

David McAlary narrates our story, which was written by VOA's Frank Ling.

TEXT: Tsunamis cannot be prevented, but ample warning can save lives. Unfortunately, that was not the case for 230,000 people who were swept away in the 2004 Indian Ocean wave. This catastrophe prompted the U.N. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to establish a tsunami warning system in this region.

A scientist with the commission, Ulrich Wolf, says so far, only some of the sensors are in place.

WOLF: "We do have an interim system in place, which essentially has got 26 new tide gauges, about 30 new seismic stations in the Indian Ocean, which all deliver bare data, real time, to the Hawaii Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Japanese Tsunami Warning Center. They provide their alerts to within 10–20 minutes to the Indian Ocean region."

TEXT: Wolf says that relaying the warning from central governments to their people remains a major challenge.

WOLF: "The technical side is quite easy to install because this is just technology we know. Once the warning shows up in the national warning system in a country, the difficult part is for a country to set up an internal civil defense system to get the warnings to the endangered areas and to the last mile."

TEXT: Warning systems are only one of the components in surviving tsunamis. Civil engineer Robert Dalrymple at Johns Hopkins University adds that evacuation systems are also needed.

DALRYMPLE: "Parts of Thailand are very flat and so they need to be able to climb up into buildings. People need places of refuge when these waves come in to shore."

TEXT: Ulrich Wolf says the other challenge is to coordinate data among the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission's member countries. Thailand, Malaysia, and India have their own warning centers, but cultural differences have prevented them from deciding on a regional warning center.

WOLF: "The essential needs are, for example, real time data flow and data availability between all the countries so all nations should be able to see all data coming online, and is not really working actually."

TEXT: Officials from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission met this week [31 Jul - 2 Aug] in Bali, but could not agree on which nation would host the regional Indian Ocean tsunami monitoring center. Instead, they renewed commitment to improve communications within their own countries. An integrated system is at least three years away.

Indonesia has promised to install alert systems in vulnerable areas and to assign 75 seaports that would send signals of possible seismic events.


That report, written by VOA's Frank Ling, was read by David McAlary

Oceans aren't just about disaster, of course. They provide food and energy and recreation. Ocean currents drive the world's climate. But a resource that covers three-quarters of the earth's surface remains in many ways a mystery.

The U.S. Senate subcommittee on ocean policy met this week to consider the "State of the Oceans." They didn't actually announce what state the world's oceans were in, but there was an admission that much about the oceans is unknown. Appearing at the Senate hearing Wednesday, Professor Michael Orbach of Duke University put it this way:

ORBACH: "I have referred in the past to the ocean as the 'black hole' of environmental science and policy on this globe. And what I mean by that is that we've spent tremendous and appropriate resources understanding and governing terrestrial environments. We've spent tremendous and appropriate resources investigating and governing atmospheric environments. But we've spent virtually nothing in comparison understanding and governing the ocean.

Scientists are among those who would like more government funding for ocean issues, but the Bush administration's proposed budget actually cuts some programs, as California Senator Barbara Boxer of the opposition Democratic Party pointed out.

BOXER: "Marine debris program is eliminated from $4.9 million. Oceans and human health eliminated, $5.2 million. Marine mammals cut to $23 million from $40.2 million. Marine aquaculture cut to $1.5 million from $4.5 million."

The Senate hearing followed one a few days earlier on the other side of Capitol Hill, where members of the House of Representatives Science Committee reviewed possible changes in government-funded ocean research programs.

Some ocean research is done by government scientists. Other studies are done by universities and research institutes, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. Its president, Marcia McNutt, in her House testimony, stressed the importance of research, and she cited the example of the discovery of living creatures — giant tube worms and oversize shellfish — clustered around geothermal vents on the ocean floor as hot as 380 degrees (Celsius).

McNUTT: "There wasn't a single biologist on board that ship to witness what was to become the most important discovery made in marine biology ever. Such discoveries don't need to be rare, accidental or potentially unappreciated with a strong, vigorous and systematic ocean exploration program."

McNutt pointed out that a vigorous and systematic program of ocean exploration could produce more surprises from beneath the sea.

Millions of people die from tuberculosis every year, experts say, because the cure is too long and complicated. But a new study suggests that more people would be helped by shortening the treatment time endorsed by the World Health Organization. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: Tuberculosis is a stubborn disease. Cure requires taking up to four antibiotics daily for a six-month period. Because patients start to feel better soon after they begin treatment, and taking the pills gets to be a nuisance, many patients stop taking them.

To make sure this does not happen, the WHO endorsed a strategy in the 1990s called Directly Observed Therapy, in which social workers watch patients take their pills. But the non-compliance rate remains high.

To try to solve the problem, experts have been studying ways to shorten treatment time.

Several studies have shown that treatment times of as little as two months appear to be just as effective as six month treatments.

Harvard University International Health Professor Joshua Salomon and colleagues conducted a study of the TB epidemic in Southeast Asia, where one-third of the global cases and deaths occur.

The investigators used a model to project what the TB epidemic would look like using a two-month treatment course and a standard six-month course, and found the shorter course to be superior.

SALOMON: "If we get them to the finish line in two months instead of six months, we're likely to see more patients cured, fewer patients forming a pool of infectious cases that can pass on the infection to others. And when we translate that into benefits in terms of reduced, new cases at the population level and reduced deaths, we see quite an enormous impact."

BERMAN: If adopted by Directly Observed Therapy, a two-month course of antibiotics could double or even triple the decline in new cases and deaths caused by tuberculosis. Under the model, the benefit would be seen between 2012 and 2030.

But the calculation assumes that a new anti-TB drug is developed and in wide use by 2012.

The study on shorter course therapy for tuberculosis was published in the online journal Public Library of Science Medicine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations. This week it's an online catalogue of how people from around the world pronounce one of the world's most widely-spoken languages.

WEINBERGER: "The Speech Accent Archive is a web-based compendium of more than 500 English accents read by speakers from more than 200 different languages."

Steven Weinberger is an associate professor of linguistics at George Mason University in Virginia and the man behind the Speech Accent Archives at accent.gmu.edu. In each of the audio samples, the person reads an identical paragraph, designed to capture almost all the sounds used in English in just a few sentences.

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags....

Audio samples there from Peru, Morocco, Kenya and Australia. The site gets a million hits a month, and Weinberger says many are people like me who are just curious about accents.

WEINBERGER: "We also get quite a few people who are speech therapists or ESL [English as a second language] teachers or actors who want to learn a particular accent in their own work. We get PhD students who want to do research and use the archive for the database."

Despite the hundreds of samples already in the archive, Steven Weinberger is still looking for more contributions.

WEINBERGER: "We are only scratching the surface of the possible languages in the world. We need quite a few samples. You know, it would be lovely to have three to five samples from every region, so we're constantly growing.

And that's where you come in. You can check out the various accents, but you can also contribute a recording that you make to the Speech Accent Archive at accent.gmu.edu, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC - "The Rain in Spain" (from "My Fair Lady" orchestral suite, Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra)

And you're listening to VOA's well-enunciated science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.


Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. After considerable debate, the decision was make to keep samples of the virus in high security labs ... just in case.

Scientists at one of those labs have been comparing the genetic code of the various smallpox samples they have on hand. They unveiled their findings in the journal "Science." Health reporter Rose Hoban reports.

HOBAN: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the few places in the world where samples of the smallpox virus are still stored. Researcher Joseph Esposito lead a team there that created genetic maps of the DNA sequences in their samples. One aim was to get idea better picture of the virus' genetic diversity.

ESPOSITO: "We took a cross section which amounts to about 45 different clinical samples of the virus, and we did the DNA sequencing on these different ones, and what that told us is that these viruses don't have a great deal of genome variation."

HOBAN: Esposito says he had suspected the samples would be similar.

ESPOSITO: "Because the same vaccine was able to eradicate the disease from the world. And these isolates represent a very tiny sample of the virus samples that were collected from about the end of World War II to the end of the smallpox eradication program in the 1970s."

HOBAN: Esposito says knowing the gene sequence could help scientists design an antiviral drug that would be effective against all the strains of smallpox in the world.

ESPOSITO: "The old vaccine that was used to eradicate smallpox has a low rate of side effects. And today those side effects are not acceptable, so there's some efforts being made to develop a safer new vaccine, should it be needed."

HOBAN: Esposito notes that the former Soviet Union did reportedly run a biowarfare lab that may have used smallpox to create weapons. The American researcher says he believes knowing the smallpox gene sequence would permit scientists to scale up vaccine production quickly in response to bioterrorism. I'm Rose Hoban.

The gender gap in some scientific professions has long challenged educators. As more women study biology and the physical sciences, the National Science Foundation says women earned only about one-quarter of undergraduate engineering and computer science degrees - down from their share two decades ago. It's a concern for educators, who say more girls need to get interested in science for the United States to remain competitive in the global market. Monica Brady-Myerov looks at two programs at Boston's Northeastern University aimed at reversing the trend.

BRADY-MYEROV: The ELMO Lab is a sophisticated set-up at one of the nation's top universities but it's designed for students who haven't even started school.

HERSEK/ADER: "Do you see the light anywhere? ..."

BRADY-MYEROV: Four year old Rachel Ader watches intently as scientist Marta Hersek explains how fiber optics work.

HERSEK: Use your laser, there you go. You're putting the light thru it's bending around bouncing off thru this tube and coming right out the other end."

BRADY-MYEROV: The Northeastern professor is usually in front of a class of education majors, showing them how to engage young boys and girls in science.

HERSEK: You really do have to understand not onlyhow kids learn and what they think, but they probably have already picked up from the world and elaborate on that. Because science is cool because early on kids are excited about learning and playing..."

BRADY-MYEROV: ELMO actually stands for Embedded Learning Modules but the name appeals to young kids. Lab leader and physics professor Arun Benson says it's critical to introduce science early, especially to girls.

BENSON: :Kindergarten is not too early because what I find is that, as they progress through grades they somehow seem to lose interest in science even though there's a natural curiosity."

BRADY-MYEROV: Studies show girls start to lose interest in middle school. A summer program at Northeastern aims to counter that trend. It gives hands on engineering and technology experience to more than 60 middle school kids who are minorities. The majority are girls, like 11-year-old Celina Gonzales

BRADY-MYEROV/GONZALEZ: "Do you like science? Not really. Why not? It's kind of boring and it's just, like, hard."

BRADY-MYEROV: This is a co-ed session but the girls and boys are in separate groups to make sure the girls aren't marginalized. This week they're learning to write a computer program that will drive a Lego car. Gonzales proudly lines hers up at the starting point.

GONZALEZ: "it's actually going to go forward then it's going to try to get to that line and then it's going to turn and reverse to this tape."

AUGUST: It's those small successes where kids see how things worked, and they got it to work to a certain point, and then they realize now I have to do some alterations to do the next thing I want it to do "

BRADY-MYEROV: Randy August is an assistant professor of engineering in charge of the week long summer session. Kids can continue their scientific explorations during the school year with after-school activities. August says the program teaches information technology in a way that interests girls.

AUGUST: "It's not the typical Newtonian physics smash-'em-up, blow-'em-up type thing which the boys have a tendency to like, but the girls shy away from, so the central theme in all the engineering projects is assistive devices for the handicapped or the elderly."

BRADY-MYEROV: Studies show that in general girls like to build things that solve problems and help people. Kendal Hoakstra, a math and technology middle school teacher in Boston, says she sees this in her class.

HOAKSTRA: "When we started this in my classroom — a very similar lesson with the Legos and engineering — they were hesitant because they've never had the experience with Legos, boys grow up with Legos and building thing and girls don't. But I am amazed at how quickly they pick up on it and how they do enjoy it as long as they are exposed to it.

BRADY-MYEROV: Researchers are now focusing on programs like Northeastern's that give girls science experience outside the classroom in the hopes of encouraging more girls to choose science as a career. For Our World, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you want to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use our postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak is our editor. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. 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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