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Our World — 19 January 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Planet Mercury gets its first closeup in three decades ... US regulators OK food from cloned animals ... and the Internet's expanding role in U.S. politics ...

BRENNER: "Now we were then able to give him feedback within in a couple of minutes saying 'Senator Obama, 60 percent of the people that were watching liked your answer. But there were 40 percent who think you need to add a little bit more.'

MySpace and the campaign, childhood malnutrition, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Astronomers this week got a close-up look at the planet Mercury as NASA's Messenger spacecraft flew within 200 kilometers of the planet's surface on Monday. The quick fly-by is giving astronomers a tantalizing preview of the kind of information that Messenger will be delivering when, if all goes well, it goes into orbit around Mercury in 2011. Messenger program scientist Marilyn Lindstrom told reporters that the mission should lead to a better understanding of how Earth and the other inner planets were formed.

LINDSTROM: "It's going to orbit for a whole year as its prime mission. Its goal is to understand the surface, the interior, the magnetosphere, and the atmosphere of this innermost planet. But in the process of doing that, we hope to be able to apply that to understanding how all four of the terrestrial planets, the four Earth-like planets, formed."

Principal investigator Sean Solomon described Mercury as a "real oddball" in our Solar System family. It's a planet so close to the sun that midday surface temperatures can reach 400 degrees Celsius — even as temperatures on the nightside plunge to minus 200 degress — a 600-degree difference not seen elsewhere in our solar system. And strangely, there's evidence Mercury might harbor ice at its poles. And the planet's heavily cratered surface and the presence of a magnetic field provide seemingly contradictory clues to how old Mercury is.

SOLOMON: "All of the inner planets formed about the same time by common processes, and yet Mercury ended up with this extreme outcome, and we really need better information on Mercury to make sure that our ideas for how the Earth and sister planets formed can be generalized to account for all the outcomes that we see."

The $450 million Messenger mission is giving scientists their closest look at the nearest planet to the Sun in more than three decades. The last spacecraft to visit Mercury, Mariner 10, flew past the planet three times, but never went into orbit, as Messenger is scheduled to do in three years. And Mariner only observed less than half of Mercury's surface. So planetary scientists are eagerly awaiting the information that the new satellte will be sending back.

On this week's fly-by, Messenger's camera's not only took pictures but also used on-board instruments to analyze the chemical composition of Mercury's surface, took laser measurements of the planet, and checked out a strange sodium-rich plume extending out from Mercury's atmosphere.

The space agency plans to release preliminary findings at the end of the month.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says food from cloned cows, pigs, goats and their offspring are safe for American consumers to eat and drink. The official decision, which was released this week, sparked a response from opponents of cloning, including some consumer and animal rights groups. They say the FDA study was flawed and heavily influenced by the biotech industry. VOA's Cindy Saine reports.

SAINE: Top Food and Drug Administration officials were joined at a news conference in Washington Tuesday by U.S. Agriculture Department Undersecretary Bruce Knight, who said his department agrees that foods from healthy cloned animals are just as safe as foods from ordinary animals.

KNIGHT: "USDA fully supports and agrees with the FDA final assessment that meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones pose no safety concern, and these products are no different than food from traditionally-bred animals."

SAINE: The FDA says, however, that it does not have enough information to make the same assertion about meat or milk from cloned sheep.

The FDA's "final risk assessment," more than 900 pages long, comes after a seven-year review. The agency is not recommending special labeling for cloned animal products, saying labeling is only required for products that pose a safety threat. The report has drawn more than 30,000 comments from the public, about half of them expressing concerns about whether the cloned animal products would be labeled so that consumers would know what they are buying.

Reaction from consumer and animal welfare groups has been largely negative. The West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, Rebecca Spector, raised strong objections.

SPECTOR: "The Center for Food Safety feels that the FDA's announcement was very irresponsible. For starters, the FDA's risk assessment was based on incomplete and flawed research, and it relies on studies that are supplied by cloning companies. So we really do not feel that the FDA did an adequate job reviewing the safety of milk and meat from cloned products before making this announcement today."

SAINE: The FDA points out that regulators in New Zealand and the European Union have come to the same conclusion about the safety of food products from cloned animals. The European Food Safety Authority is still taking comments on its proposal to allow meat and milk from cloned animals.

Surveys show that many American consumers are reluctant to eat cloned animals or their offspring. The nation's largest milk company, Dean Foods and the world's biggest pork processor, Smithfield Foods, have said they have no immediate plans to start selling the products.

The FDA says it will be years before food from clones makes it way to grocery story shelves because the clones are much too valuable to slaughter or milk. They will mainly be used for breeding purposes, to improve the quality of the herd.

Cloning has been a matter of fascination, but also of bitter controversy worldwide ever since Scottish scientists announced in 1997 that they had produced a cloned sheep, Dolly. Cindy Saine, VOA News, Washington.

As we heard, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports the FDA's ruling that meat and dairy products from cloned animals are safe. But USDA officials, perhaps in deference to widespread consumer concerns about food-animal cloning, say they will ask producers of clones to continue to abide by a "voluntary moratorium" and keep their products off the market.

Sickle cell anemia is a reality for millions of people with roots in Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East and parts of India. It's a genetic disease that manifests itself as malformed — and malfunctioning — red blood cells. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, a new study indicates that doctors may have been failing to appreciate the amount of pain suffered by sickle cell patients.

HOBAN: Red blood cells, which usually look like donuts, deform into the shape of a crescent, or sickle blade shape — thus the name. This severely impedes their ability to carry oxygen throughout the body, and can result in debilitating pain for patients.

Wally Smith from the Virginia Commonwealth University says most doctors believe that the 'pain crises' associated with sickle cell disease are occasional events. But in his practice, he was seeing patients who reported pain more frequently.

SMITH: "Patients felt like they were getting a lot of pain at home, and their quality of life was poor, and they were not able to work, go to school, have children, get married and do the things that you would expect a patient who's mostly healthy to do."

HOBAN: So, Smith decided to study how often these patients actually experienced pain. He gave several hundred people diaries to record daily how much pain they were having.

SMITH: "More than a quarter, almost of third of the patients experienced sickle cell pain nearly daily, 95 out of every 100 days. And that was completely different than what the textbooks had said, or what researchers have generally perceived in the past. We also found that in general, this pain was much more frequent and severe than what was previously reported."

HOBAN: Often, Smith says, sickle cell patients are perceived as manipulative when they come to a hospital or doctor's office looking for medication to treat sickle cell pain. But his study shows that the patients were only asking for drugs when the pain became unbearable.

SMITH: "So no matter how bad the pain was, most of the time they stayed at home, even if they thought they were in a crisis."

HOBAN: Smith says his findings are particularly disturbing in light of the fact that many countries in Africa and Asia — where there are many sickle cell sufferers — lack ready access to pain medicine. He recounts a story of a visiting government official from an African country who asked him to write a prescription for his son, because he was unable to obtain opiate medications in his own country.

Smith's study is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, it's a site that puts two centuries of presidential history online, giving students, scholars, and the just plain curious insight into America's chief executives from the 18th century right through today.

PETERS: "We have all of the Public Papers and Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents in a searchable database, and they're available online for researchers, and that way people can search presidential documents across the entire range of presidential history."

Gerhard Peters is co-founder of Various kinds of presidential speeches, documents, press conferences and other material are widely available. But this website, which is hosted at the University of California in Santa Barbara, aims to bring everything together in one place.

PETERS: "So this includes everything from public remarks, transcripts of news conferences, transcripts of all the addresses, and also written documents such as proclamations, executive orders, memoranda, statements, and the messages to Congress."

The emphasis is on written material, but there are also hundreds of audio and video clips, such as President Franklin Roosevelt's World War II-era fireside chats on radio, and video of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration address.

KENNEDY: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you;ask what you can do for your country."

As you may have noticed we're in the middle of a presidential election campaign here in the U.S., and there's lots of material on to help you sort out the candidates.

PETERS: "We have a section on past presidential elections, and this year I'm adding all of the presidential candidates' debates, transcripts from these debates, as well as remarks that the candidates are delivering following the various primaries and caucuses."

Gerhard Peters says one final job in this presidential election season will be to capture documents on the current White House website, which is scheduled to come down when President Bush leaves office, exactly one year from now, when his successor will launch a new White House website.

Two centuries of presidential history on, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: The Goldman Band — "President's March"

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

Here in the United States, as you may know, voters have begun the process of helping choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will compete in the presidential election in November. It's an interesting campaign for a lot of reasons — the first viable African American and woman candidates, the longest campaign, and the Internet's biggest role in a campaign so far. Candidates have their own websites, of course. But this is also the first national campaign in which interactive social networking websites such as MySpace are playing a significant role, especially with young voters. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: That's the music MySpace and MTV users hear at the beginning of the Presidential Dialog programs, a series of interactive candidate/MySpace user forums which are being broadcast throughout this presidential election season. With most of its user-members between the ages of 18 of 35, is one of the Internet's most dynamic and powerful social and political networks.

Almost anyone with an Internet connection can register into MySpace for free and get what amounts to a personal webpage within the MySpace domain. From this platform, users can exchange information about themselves and their interests in a variety of formats with other MySpace users of their choosing. These fellow users are called "friends."

This year, all the major presidential candidates have created their own MySpace pages and thousands of "friends" with whom they can share information about themselves and their policy positions. MySpace users can then learn about particular candidates, and comment or express support on their own MySpace pages. By making their personal verdicts public, users can influence the community of "friends" who view their pages, as MySpace political director Lee Brenner explains:

BRENNER: "There is different software they can bring down to show how they are following a candidate, and what their candidate is doing and why they are excited about them. They can post bulletins and email their friends without having to leave MySpace."

PHILLIPS: This setup also helps candidates to reach more young and undecided voters with the sort of personalized referrals that are gold in political campaigns. When, for example, a person is "friends" with Hillary Clinton, and other people are also "friends" with that person, Hillary gets a MySpace link to those other people. But MySpace also enables an even more intimate connection between candidates and voters.

McCAIN: "In the case of both those countries, it depends on whether they pose an immediate threat…"

PHILLIPS: That's Republican presidential candidate John McCain answering a question on what, in his judgment, "would warrant an attack on another country in the Middle East, for instance, Syria or Iran, if either one became "nuclear"?

McCAIN: "… And I want to assure you I would consult with members of Congress, I would talk to the American people…"

PHILLIPS: But that question did not come from some seasoned political reporter or pundit; it came from a MySpace user with the screen name "mstrand1980."

Mstrand1980 emailed his question to the Presidential Dialog interactive forum MySpace was hosting with MTV in New Hampshire, where the season's first primary was about to be held.

This forum also allows audience members to give candidates near-instant feedback about their answers.

BRENNER: "For example, we asked Senator Obama a question about Iraq. We then asked the users that were watching him give his answer how he was answering. We were then able to give him feedback within in a couple of minutes saying 'Senator Obama, 60 percent of the people that were watching liked your answer. But there were 40 percent who think you need to add a little bit more.' And we were able to go back with him and get more of a dialog going between the audience and the candidate."

PHILLIPS: This social networking technology has important uses besides electoral politics. MySpace also has a huge potential for activists about issues ranging from international development and community building, to environmentalism and human rights. This is Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

Nutrition is a dangerously neglected aspect of maternal and child health worldwide, according to a series of studies published this week in the British medical journal, The Lancet. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the studies call for greater investment in nutrition services and an overhaul of public health systems.

SKIRBLE: The most critical time in a baby's life is the period from conception to age two. What happens to a developing child during that interval can predict future health, says Robert Black, chairman of the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and lead author of the Lancet series. Black paints a grim picture for babies who are vitamin-deficient, improperly breastfed, or not breastfed at all.

BLACK: "These risk factors are responsible for more than one-third — about 35 percent actually — of child deaths and 11 percent of the global disease burden."

SKIRBLE: Black says prenatal problems, stunted growth, and severe wasting account for 2.2 million deaths of children under five. And young children who don't succumb to nutrition-related disease suffer in other ways. Undernourishment leads to poor brain development, reduced cognitive ability, lower school achievement, and reduced economic income later on.

Black says these children are also more likely to have chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as adults.

BLACK: "The key messages here are that stunting, [being] underweight in the first two years of life...leads to irreversible damage into adult life. And the prevention of these maternal and early childhood undernutrition conditions will be a long-term investment to benefit both this generation [of children] and the children of this generation."

SKIRBLE: According to the Lancet reports, the majority of undernourished children live in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Professor Black says the Lancet studies provide a compelling case for proven interventions, including breastfeeding, foods fortified with vitamin A and zinc, and management of acute severe malnutrition.

BLACK: "We estimate that we could reduce all child deaths by one-quarter in the short term and reduce prevalence of stunting by 36 months of age by about one-third.

SKIRBLE: Professor Black says nutrition programs must focus more on the first two years of life. He notes this was not the case in the countries studied for the Lancet series.

BLACK: "Of these 20 countries, 10 were implementing feeding programs for pre-school children at greater than 24 months of age. All 20 countries were implementing school feeding programs. Now it may be that these programs — in fact there is evidence that these programs have some benefits that are non-nutritional, for education, for example, but as nutritional interventions we don't think this is good targeting."

SKIRBLE: Kent Hill, the assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, says nutrition services can also play a key role in supporting broader public health campaigns, especially the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

HILL: "The place where the women receive the nutrients or the folic acid or the oral rehydration therapy or the zinc or the [vitamin] A. All of these things that relate to nutrition can also be the place they get the mosquito nets, where their kids get vaccinated. It can be this child and maternal clinic, this point of contact. These interventions need to be connected."

SKIRBLE: The systems that provide nutrition services are often supported by donor organizations, academia, civil society and the private sector. The Lancet authors say this system is fragmented, dysfunctional and badly in need of reform. That's a message taken very seriously by Joy Phumaphi, vice president for human development at the World Bank.

PHUMAPHI: "Whatever we do, we need to bring all of these interrelated areas together in order to insure that we get the 'bang for the buck' in this particular area, most importantly the outcomes at country level. I think that really is the bottom line and that is what we need to commit to."

SKIRBLE: World Bank official Joy Phumaphi adds that if the global community truly wants to make a lasting difference, it must make long-term commitments to improve the education, economic status, and political empowerment of women. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. 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 technology ... in Our World.