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Our World Transcript — 25 November 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": promoting a family- planning strategy to slow the spread of AIDS…boosting the nutrient content of wheat through genetic engineering… and treating sewage with wetland reeds called "phragmites"…

BRANDEE NELSON: "The whole reason to have the reed beds is really to get the largest volume reduction of your waste product. Because the sludge tends to have so much water in it, and phragmites suck up an enormous amount of water."

Processing wastewater the natural way. Also: beating out healthy rhythms in drum therapy. Hi! I'm Rosanne Skirble, sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

THEME MUSIC

Stronger promotion of condom use could help put the brakes on the global HIV-AIDS epidemic, according to a new study published in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

The study suggests condom use could be especially helpful in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounted for 65 percent of the 4 point 3 million new HIV infections reported this year by the World Health Organization.

The Lancet study surveyed the sexual behavior of 130,000 young single women from 18 African countries between 1993 and 2001. Abstinence and fidelity rates among this population - aged 15-24 - remained relatively unchanged, while the percentage of respondents who said their male partners used condoms more than tripled from 5.3 to 18.8 percent. In 13 of the 18 countries in the survey, 60 percent of the women said they were using condoms for pregnancy prevention.

Lead author John Cleland - professor of Medical Demography with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health - says the numbers are encouraging, especially for this group of sexually active African women who are also at risk for contracting HIV.

JOHN CLELAND: "What it tells you is that condom promotion campaigns in all their various forms are working. And that goes contrary to the U.S. Administration's thrust of prevention -- that abstinence is the way forward. And there is no evidence to support that view."

The Bush Administration's response to the worldwide AIDS epidemic, known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, funds global HIV prevention programs. PEPFAR promotes a three-pronged approach to prevention of the sexually- transmitted disease that it calls "A-B-C," where A stands for abstinence, B for Be faithful and C for condoms. PEPFAR administrator Mark Dybul was unavailable for an interview. But in a written statement he says, "The data are clear that you need all three components" to effectively fight the AIDS epidemic.

Some critics fault the ABC approach for emphasizing sexual abstinence over condom use. Lancet study author John Cleland says the U.S. policy amounts to an embargo on the social marketing and promotion of condoms.

JOHN CLELAND: "Other donors have to step in and fill that gap, because the unsung hero of the game are the people who make condoms familiar, available and affordable."

But U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Mark Dybul says that the United States supports condom distribution. "This year," he writes, "the U.S. planned to ship more than 486 million condoms worldwide." That is triple the number shipped in 2001.

Study author John Cleland says the finding that condoms are becoming a more popular method of contraception in Sub-Saharan Africa is welcome news because of their value in protecting against both unwanted pregnancy and HIV. He says this is of immediate importance to women in the region, who make up 60 percent of HIV-infected people.

JOHN CLELAND: "The big message is that pregnancy prevention and HIV control should get together more closely. It might well be more effective to provide condoms for pregnancy prevention than for disease control because it is perfectly obvious that for a young women, it is easier to persuade her sexual partner to use a condom to prevent pregnancy than to prevent disease."

Cleland says he hopes the survey will be a wake-up call for public health policy makers.

More on health issues later in the broadcast, but now we turn to news from the field of agriculture. Scientists report that they have genetically engineered two crops in a way they say will help improve nutrition in poor countries. One group has boosted the levels of certain nutrients in wheat and another team has made the seeds of the cotton plant safe to eat for the first time. But as VOA's David McAlary reports, opponents of genetic modification are raising objections to the changes.

McALARY: Wheat -- long a staple food -- could become more nutritious. U.S. and Israeli scientists have found a gene that increases protein, zinc, and iron in wild wheat. This gene has lost its function in domesticated wheat, but the researchers report in the journal "Science" that they have inserted it into cultivated wheat to boost the nutrient content.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 160 million children under age five lack adequate protein, and more than two billion people are deficient in zinc and iron.

Wheat breeder Jorge Dubcovsky of the University of California at Davis says his team's work could help the situation.

JORGE DUBCOVSKY: "It increases protein and it increases micronutrients -- both things. So if you take that wheat to a place where people are having deficiencies in iron and zinc -- the two micronutrients that are the largest deficiencies in developing countries -- in the same amount of grain, you will deliver 10 to 15 percent more iron and zinc."

McALARY: The University of California says Dubcovsky leads a consortium of 20 public wheat-breeding programs that is introducing this and other valuable genes into U.S. wheat varieties.

Meanwhile, the cotton plant might become a food source if research detoxifying its seeds proves practical. According to a study in the "Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences," plant biologists in Texas have genetically engineered the crop so that the amount of the poisonous substance gossypol has been reduced in its seeds to levels safe for human consumption.

Cotton produces 65 percent more seed than fiber by weight, so Texas A&M University plant technologist Keerti Rathore says the cottonseed produced annually in more than 80 countries could feed a lot of people.

KEERTI RATHORE: "The amount of protein that is stored in the cottonseed is almost 10 million metric tons roughly. That amount of cottonseed, if it can be used directly, has the potential to meet the protein requirements of about 500 million people."

McALARY: Rathore's team used a technique to shut off a gene that produces the poisonous gossypol in cottonseed. Half a century ago, traditional breeding eliminated the toxin from the entire plant, but that alteration made it an easy target for insect pests. The new genetic manipulation maintains cotton's toxic defenses everywhere except the seeds.

The Texas A&M University scientist says the new cotton -- if it surmounts more research and government regulatory hurdles -- would improve not only diets in poor countries, but also farmers' income.

JORGE RATHORE: "Not only will they get value for their fiber, but they also get higher value for the cottonseed that they are producing."

McALARY: Environmentalists are skeptical of the cottonseed and wheat projects. A British group called GM Freeze opposes genetically modified, or GM, foods and says genetic alterations could lead to unpredictable and potentially harmful results. The organization's campaign director, Peter Riley, says fighting world hunger takes more than gene manipulation.

PETER RILEY: "It is extremely naive to think that by just creating a new GM crop that we're somehow going to overcome the economic and social problems that are the root of poverty and starvation in the southern countries. These aren't problems you can solve with miracle science."

McALARY: But pediatrician Jonathan Gitlin of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri says advances in basic plant sciences are necessary to help reduce malnutrition and child mortality. In a commentary in "Science" magazine, Gitlin writes that the new studies reinforce the inherent value of science for improving the lives of the youngest among us.

BRIDGE

Our next story looks to Mother Nature for a practical solution to a real-world problem that human societies everywhere have to deal with - sewage and wastewater treatment. For decades, engineers have used mechanical means to process wastewater before disposing of the end product in landfills. It turns out that a robust wetland reed can do the job just as quickly and for a fraction of the cost of mechanical treatment. Adam Allington with Michigan Public Radio's The Environment report has more:

ALLINGTON: Brandee Nelson is wearing knee-high rubber boots. She's wading out into a tiny patch of reeds gently swaying in the wind. They're planted in a goopy substance that appears to be mud, but is actually:

BRANDEE NELSON: "Sludge. We're standing ankle deep in sludge. Sludge is the leftover solids from the conventional sewage treatment process. Things that are very organic in nature, but thin enough that you can't really scoop it out with your hand. It's not the consistency of yogurt, it's more like a thin milkshake."

ALLINGTON: That thin milkshake used to be the solid stuff that you flush down the drain. Nelson is an environmental engineer working for the village of Tivoli, New York. Today she is monitoring the growth of two recently planted reed beds. The reeds are an invasive wetland species called "phragmites," or "common reed". In most places these reeds are a problem because they crowd-out native plants, but here they're doing a job.

BRANDEE NELSON: "The whole reason to have the reed beds is really to get the largest volume reduction of your waste product. Because the sludge tends to have so much water in it, and phragmites sucks up an enormous amount of water. This bed, we're standing in it now, this bed will be totally dry in one day."

ALLINGTON: Even though Tivoli is relatively small at about 1000 residents, the village still produces 100,000 gallons of wastewater every day. That wastewater translates into a whole lot of sludge, which Tivoli then has to haul to landfills.

TOM CORDIER:"We'll probably be saving about $45,000 on hauling fees."

ALLINGTON: Tom Cordier is deputy mayor for the village of Tivoli.

TOM CORDIER:"At one point we had drying beds, and it took about a week for them to dry, and then we would come in with our backhoe and take out the dried material. But every time we got ready to do that, it would rain and we would have to start the whole process over again, and then in the wintertime it was always freezing, and finally we got to the point where we had to have it trucked away."

ALLINGTON: Before they planted the reeds, Tivoli had to remove their liquid sludge once a month. When the reeds are fully grown, the village won't need to haul anything away for over 10 years. But if reed bed technology is so efficient, why isn't everyone using it?

The answer has a lot to do with the predictability of mechanics, versus the variables of biology.

DAN FLEURIEL: "One of the issues with the reed beds is it's a biological process. Engineers like to typically do things that are mechanical, things that fit into formulas."

ALLINGTON: Dan Fleuriel is director of the wastewater treatment for the town of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Shelburne Falls began experimenting with reed bed technology back in the early 1990's. Unlike the short 3-foot reeds in Tivoli, the mature reeds in Shelburne Falls tower some 6 feet over us as we walk through them.

DAN FLEURIEL: "We've been applying to these reed beds since 1993. It's been very good for us because we've gone from a very time consuming process of de-watering sludge to something that we pretty much leave hands-off that we can rely on."

ALLINGTON: Functionality and reliability: they're fundamental to any civil engineering project. But Brandee Nelson notes that Tivoli's reed beds also make sense from an environmental perspective.

BRANDEE NELSON: "This waste product, 150,000 gallons of it, used to go to a landfill somewhere else and it wasn't our problem any more. Now what we're able to do is manage that waste product here on site in a relatively small footprint using a natural technology, a very low-energy technology, and in the end we'll end up with a product that we can use for village landscaping projects."

ALLINGTON: Tivoli's reed beds are expected to reach full maturity by next summer. Success of the project is being followed closely by neighboring towns, which are also considering a switch to reed bed treatment plants.

I'm Adam Allington.

That report comes to us courtesy of the Environment Report, a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the DTE Energy Foundation, and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. You can find more information at Environment Report.org

BRIDGE

We've got several stories in our health news file today: First, a warning: Eating red meat may be associated with a higher risk of certain breast cancers. That's the finding of a 12-year study of 90,000 pre-menopausal women.

One thousand of the women in the study developed breast cancer.

Half were diagnosed with a type of breast cancer that has been increasing in the United States, especially among middle-aged women. This type - characterized by hormones that promote tumor growth - is the one linked to red meat. Lead author Eunyoung Cho of Harvard University says the more red meat consumed, the greater the risk of a type of breast cancer known as "hormone receptor-positive."

EUNYOUNG CHO: "Pre-menopausal women who ate more than one and one half servings of red meat per day experienced almost double the risk of hormone-receptor positive breast cancer compared with those who ate less than three servings of red meat per week."

Cho says various components in red meat may be related to the elevated cancer risk.

EUNYOUNG CHO: "For example, carcinogens found in uncooked or processed red meat, hormone treatment of beef cattle for growth promotion and the type of iron found in red meat may be responsible for the association."

While breast cancer is more common among older women, Cho says this study of younger women presents important health data for women as they age.

EUNYOUNG CHO: "We thought that diet in early adult life may affect risk for breast cancer [later in life]."

Cho says more research must be done to evaluate the impact of a red meat diet over decades, but in the short term, reducing red meat consumption is better for overall health.

The study - which also involved researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital - was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a publication of the American Medical Association.

Doctors have long promoted a daily low dose of aspirin to protect against heart attack and stroke. Duke University Cardiologist Jeffrey Berger added more weight to the recommendation with a study presented at this month's American Heart Association meeting in Chicago.

Berger and his colleagues find that people with cardiovascular disease - but whose condition is stable - benefit dramatically from taking 50 to 325 milligrams of aspirin each day.

JEFFREY BERGER: "We found that aspirin decreased mortality by 13 percent, non-fatal heart attacks by 26 percent, non-fatal stroke by 25 percent."

The study looked at data from 10,000 patients in six clinical trials. Berger says while taking a daily aspirin also increases a patient's risk of bleeding, the protective benefits for people with heart disease far outweigh the risks.

JEFFREY BERGER: "Unless somebody has a severe contra indication, such as a really bad allergic reaction or they have had some intolerable bleeds, people should be on aspirin therapy."

Berger says compared to newer drugs like statins that have been effective in protecting against heart disease, "everyday aspirin costs less and comes off looking very good."

And finally in this week's health news: moderate exercise can help prevent the common cold.

Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle compared two groups of sedentary overweight post-menopausal women. Half of them did moderate exercise five times a week, and the other women attended one weekly 45-minute stretching session.

Moderate exercise made a difference in the number of colds they got, says CBS-TV medical expert Emily Senay.

EMILY SENAY: "Those women who were just in the stretching class, not getting moderate exercise, just stretching, had twice as many colds as did the women in the moderate exercise group."

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center study indicates that an exercise program doesn't have to be intense to be effective.

EMILY SENAY: "These women were not running marathons. They were not lifting 100 pound [45 kilo] weights. These women were walking briskly about thirty minutes each day. Now, they had wanted them to do 45. They didn't quite get there. They got 30 minutes. Nevertheless they still got this benefit."

Senay says participants did even better the longer they stuck with the moderate exercise program.

EMILY SENAY: "By the end of the study which was the 9th to 12th month, they found that the women who were just in the stretching group had three times more colds than the women who were in the moderate exercise group. The benefit does seem to be cumulative. So, once you start it, stick with it because you will keep getting more benefit."

Senay says the findings underscore the importance of regular exercise for better health. The study was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Medicine.

BRIDGE

A few weeks ago on a trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I heard the sound of drums, not in a club or concert hall, but in a place where you would least expect, a neighborhood nursing home. That's where I sat in on a session with elderly men and women who are beating out rhythms for better health.

AMBIENT SFX OF NURSING HOME LIVING ROOM, ESTABLISH AND HOLD UNDER TEXT THAT FOLLOWS

Nancy Hahn has a way with older people. On this day - as she does twice a month at Vincentia de Marillac nursing home - Hahn pushes all the living room furniture against the wall and invites the elderly residents into a drum circle.

About a dozen or so in wheel chairs and walkers are handed drums and rattles in many shapes and sizes.

NANCY HAHN: "I'm giving you the frog today… [SFX UNDER TEXT THAT FOLLOWS] and remember you can either hit him or stroke him. What every you want to do (LAUGHTER). Sara, do you want boomwacker [two long plastic sticks] or a shaker? You don't care. OK, I'll give you some yellow boomwackers. Do you want to try them? How do they sound to you? Hit them together!"

SFX OF BOOMWACKERS, TAKE UNDER TEXT THAT FOLLOWS

Hahn begins with a love story that she tells residents is about her own life.

NANCY HAHN/GROUP: "You know it was an autumn day like this one when I met my husband. And I was so thrilled to be spending time with him that I wished the time would never end. Doesn't that sound romantic? And since it was an autumn moon, I was singing about a harvest moon. I was singing: [SINGS] 'Shine on, shine on harvest moon …"

Residents recognize the popular old tune from their youth and chime in -- on and off the beat.

Hahn then revs up the musical action with games designed to keep participants physically and mentally engaged.

NANCY HAHN: "OK. This is the game. Every time I take a step, I want you to hit your drum. OK, everybody got that? I am going to step. Everybody play your own, whatever you want to hear. Good! Everybody play your own [drum] whatever you want to hear!"

Hahn says she gets as much as she gives and sometimes more. She treasures the moments when she sees glimpses of the residents' more vigorous younger selves.

NANCY HAHN: "I get to see in a drum circle who their inner persons are. I get to see flashes of their personality that I don't get to see at other times. I get to see their sense of humor. I get to see the enjoyment they get out of watching someone else achieve something. I get to see them share with each other. It allows me to see them in a different way."

You cannot make a mistake in a drum circle. Anything goes. While the activity lasts for less than an hour, residents say it always lifts their spirits.

Veronica: "It just makes you feel good. I think so. It makes me feel happy."

Sara Nelson: "It's much better than being alone and having troubles."

Rose: "Oh, I love it. I like to participate and I like the sound of the drums. Sometimes it perks me up and sometimes I let it go. And when I am really bad and hear the sound of the drums, I perk up."

That does not surprise Sister Donna Marie Beck, who heads the music therapy department at Duquesne University and who came to the nursing home for today's session. She notes that ancient cultures recognized the healing power of drums, and only now are 21st century researchers beginning to document its benefits.

SISTER DONNA MARIE BECK: "It doesn't matter who the clientele are or what their diagnosis is, the music just engenders within us and activates rhythms, our natural rhythms and love for the sound. So it is sounds within and sounds without and people sharing that, and it is very powerful."

Sister Donna Marie says the proof that the therapy works was evident today at Vincentia de Marillac, where elderly residents wore smiles as they shared the rhythms of life.

OUR WORLD THEME

And, that's our program for this week. Rob Sivak is our editor. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. I'm Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on "Our World."

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