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Our World — 22 March 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The Arctic icecap isn't just smaller, it's thinner, too ... A sobering update for World TB Day ... And a public health menace on wheels

KRUG: "Everyday around the world we see new roads being built, new drivers taking the road, but unfortunately these developments are not being matched with safety measures."

Those stories, spreading the flu by just breathing, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. scientists this week reported a decline in the older and thicker ice that is a key measure of the health of the icecap around the North Pole.

The arctic icecap normally expands in the winter and melts back in the summer, but there has been a slow and steady decline over recent years, culminating in a dramatic falloff six months ago, in September.

In a briefing for reporters this week, scientists focused not just on how large the polar icecap is, but also on how thick it is. And according to Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, the once-robust ice sheets are getting thinner.

MEIER: "It's like looking at a Hollywood set. You may see a facade of a building and it may look OK, but if you could see behind it you see that it's just a set, there's not a real building there. And what we're seeing with the ice cover is, we're getting thinner and thinner ice, and that ice is much more susceptible to melting during the summer, and it's much more likely to melt away."

Meier and other scientists stress that so-called "perennial" sea ice — thicker ice that has survived at least one summer melting season, and especially older and even thicker perennial ice that has not melted in years — is key to the health of the polar ice sheet.

In the 1980s, perennial ice covered half the Arctic Ocean. This winter it was only 30 percent.

Over this year's northern winter just ended, the arctic ice — including the newly formed seasonal ice — has bounced back from its record low extent in September, but if the icecap is thinner than in prior years, it means, as Meier says, that the downward trend in polar ice could continue.

Meier says a big loss of ice could have a dramatic impact on weather patterns far beyond the Arctic.

MEIER: "That's going to affect the difference in temperatures and the difference in heat near the North Pole, in mid-latitudes and lower latitudes, so that affects your ocean circulations potentially and your atmospheric circulation, your weather patterns. Exactly how it will impact, I don't think we really know yet. But there definitely will be wider climate impacts from the declining sea ice than just in the Arctic."

One thing you won't have to worry about: melting Arctic sea ice won't affect sea levels. That's not true, however, for ice that now sits on land, such as the nearby massive Greenland ice sheet.

Mention Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and you possibly think of a soldier returning from war, or perhaps the dazed survivors of a natural disaster. But not every veteran or homeless earthquake victim suffers from PTSD. Scientists are trying to figure out why some people are more likely to experience symptoms than others. And as we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, they're focusing on some possibilities.

SKIRBLE: PTSD is a debilitating stress-related psychiatric disorder triggered by trauma. Rates are highest among war veterans and people living in high-crime areas.

The 900 low-income urban people surveyed reported multiple traumatic events over the course of their lives, notes study co-author Rebekah Bradley, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Emory School of Medicine.

BRADLEY: "Slightly over 40 percent of our sample reports exposure to four or more different types of traumatic events. So this would be a natural disaster, a car accident, a friend or family member who had been murdered and some other kind of assault."

SKIRBLE: But not everyone exposed to trauma develops PTSD, and the researchers wanted to find out why. They studied three factors: childhood sexual and physical abuse, other types of trauma and genetic factors.

Thirty percent of the people in the study reported a history of child abuse. Those who had later also experienced other traumas had twice the number of PTSD symptoms as the adults who were not abused as children.

But a history of abuse was not enough to explain increased PTSD symptoms among adults. Rebekah Bradley says researchers suspected genetics could be a factor. They analyzed DNA samples to determine whether certain variations of a stress-related gene were present or not.

BRADLEY: "Four of the variations in this gene showed a significant interaction with childhood abuse in predicting post-traumatic stress disorders.

SKIRBLE: The gene in question is called FKBP5. Bradley says it normally helps regulate stress in the body, igniting a normal fear-related response under trauma and later shutting it down.

BRADLEY: "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder itself is associated with problems in that stress response system."

SKIRBLE: PTSD is usually treated with psychotherapy and drugs. Rebekah Bradley says the new discovery may lead to strategies that might help better manage the condition.

BRADLEY: "This information also gives us some clue into what areas in terms of what types of medicines we might use to treat PTSD, continue to look at different in which the stress response is altered and how we can target that with medicine."

SKIRBLE: The study is part of this week's special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association devoted to the influence of genes on health and disease. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

The World Health Organization this week warned that the fight against tuberculosis is stalling, with an estimated nine million new cases reported in just-released figures for 2006.

The total number of cases was up slightly due to population growth. As a percentage of population, the hardest-hit region is Africa, but India, China and Indonesia have the largest number of cases in absolute numbers.

The estimate of nine million new cases is based on a mathematical projection. What really matters is the ability of health workers to identify and treat people infected with TB.

In a conference call with reporters, the head of the WHO's Stop TB Department, Mario Raviglione, said that case detection rate — a key marker of progress in fighting tuberculosis — was up only three percent last year — half the increase of the previous year.

RAVIGLIONE: "The rapid strides that have been made in previous years, particularly in Asian countries, have slowed down, so essentially some countries have not been able to keep the pace of the expansion they had and case detection they had in previous years. And at the same time, we're not yet seeing at all an increase in this case detection in the African region."

About one out of 12 TB patients is also infected with HIV, and the WHO report says that testing tuberculosis patients to see if they are infected with the AIDS virus is becoming more common, with 30 times more TB patients being tested in 2006 than were tested just four years earlier.

RAVIGLIONE: "So there has been a major increase in patients with TB undergoing HIV testing, and this is very important because then, once you test someone with TB for HIV you, if you find a person that is HIV positive, you can offer anti-retrovirals or you can do things like counseling for what needs to be done on top of anti-retrovirals. So that's a good sign."

The report says about 85 percent of TB patients are being cured. That amounts to about 30 million people. But many others are not. The UN health body cited an enormous funding gap between what is being spent and what is needed to make progress against tuberculosis. WHO economist Katherine Floyd says the shortfall is nominally $1 billion.

FLOYD: In addition to that, there are additional funding needs for technical assistance to technical agencies and also for multidrug-resistant TB and in some of the countries which have a lot of cases but haven't actually reported financial data us. And when you include these additional needs, the funding gap is around $2 billion in 2008.

The WHO's report on tuberculosis was released a week ahead of Monday's annual observance of World TB Day.

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

This week, it's a website for people who think that foreign policy issues are an important part of a U.S. presidential election. At the Council on Foreign Relations they thought the news media weren't giving enough attention to the candidates' views on international affairs, so they started our Website of the Week, Campaign 2008 at cfr.org/campaign2008.

MORAN: "What we hoped to do is to take what was being said on the hustings, what candidates have said in the past, and see if we can put together a website that really focused on the international debate that's going on in the campaign."

Michael Moran is executive editor of Campaign 2008, where one of the most useful features is called Issue Tracker. It's a way to focus on one issue at a time, and compare what each candidate has said on issues ranging from immigration to nuclear proliferation.

MORAN: "We've broken down international issues into about two dozen different categories. For instance, something we call the candidates on India. It's a compendium of statements by the various candidates on U.S. ties with India. We have similar ones for Russia, for Africa, for Cuba, for Venezuela. So this really gives you the opportunity to drill down and find out where exactly these candidates stand on some of these issues."

CFR's Campaign 2008 features a blog so you can keep up on the daily flow of international issue-related comments from the candidates. In addition to aggregating information from other sources, the site features some unique content, such as articles by experts at the Council on Foreign Relations' own think tank and 4,000-word essays written by the candidates for its prestigious journal, Foreign Affairs.

MORAN: "And those are really unique documents that set forth from each candidate of what their foreign policy would be like as soon as they got into office."

All this and podcasts, too, at the Council on Foreign Relations' Campaign 2008. It's at cfr.org/campaign2008, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Sunnyland Slim — "Be Careful How You Vote"

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

An important if often overlooked part of public health is injury prevention. Some 1,000 safety experts from around the world met in Merida, Mexico, this week to discuss ways of preventing injuries from falls, burns, drowning, homicide, and domestic violence. And as Philip Graitcer reports, one area that received a lot of attention was road traffic safety, and in particular its impact in developing countries.

GRAITCER: Worldwide, road traffic crashes kill about 1.2 million people a year. Dr. Etienne Krug heads the World Health Organization's injury prevention program.

KRUG: "Road traffic crashes are among the leading causes of deaths in the world. They also contribute to a huge amount of injuries that don't kill but cause an enormous amount of disability and suffering."

GRAITCER: Krug says most of these injuries — nearly 90 percent — occur in low- and middle-income countries.

KRUG: "Everyday around the world we see new roads being built, new drivers taking the road. This is all a good thing, to a certain extent, but unfortunately these developments are not being matched with safety measures."

GRAITCER: And according to the coordinator of India's Transportation Research Program, Prof. Dinesh Mohan, this isn't likely to change.

DENISH: "The situation is getting worse largely because of the way we want to develop into motorized societies. We are following the model of living and eating and sleeping where you separate living places and not encourage walking and bicycling by most people."

GRAITCER: Mohan says that the impact of road traffic crashes in low-income countries is particularly devastating.

DENISH: "When a family member gets hurt, they really get destroyed. At times they lose their jobs, family, money, have to sell their homes to get treated."

GRAITCER: But simple measures used in high-income countries can also reduce traffic injuries in poorer countries, and the World Health Organization is trying to promote them

KRUG: We try to promote helmet wearing for motorcyclists, seatbelt wearing, combating drinking and driving and excessive speeds which are interventions that are well known interventions that have been implemented in many high-income countries, but in many low- and middle-income countries are not taking place yet."

GRAITCER: Two countries — Vietnam and Mexico — were singled out to receive special technical and financial support from the WHO.

KRUG: "So in Vietnam we started working very actively with local partners on improving helmet-wearing for motorcyclists, and we've seen a dramatic change in the last few months where helmet wearing have increased from about 10-15 percent to almost 100 percent."

GRAITCER: In Mexico, increasing urbanization and the fast growing economy have contributed to increased numbers of road traffic injuries and deaths. Dr. Arturo Cervantes heads Mexico's injury program.

CERVANTES: "The first cause of death in children aged 5-15 years of age is road traffic injuries. The first cause of death in youth from 15-30 is road traffic injuries."

GRAITCER: Mexico has started a campaign to make its roads safer and to reduce traffic deaths and injuries. A national safety committee has established priorities. Cervantes says laws are inconsistent from state-to-state and sometimes traffic laws aren't enforced at all.

CERVANTES: "We have to work closely with authorities at the municipal and state levels sop that where there are laws, we follow them."

GRAITCER: Mexico has started road safety projects in five states. Each state will try their own approach to enforce laws, increasing helmet use, and control speeding and drunk driving.

The WHO's Etienne Krug hopes that other countries will start similar projects and that governmental and non-governmental international development agencies will invest in traffic safety.

KRUG: "It's important to realize that road traffic crashes kill as many people as malaria, for instance, another important public health problem but for which investments are much, much bigger compared to what's being invested for road safety."

GRAITCER: And with the total economic costs of traffic injuries now costing governments more than they receive in development assistance, traffic safety programs may be a timely investment.

For Our World, I'm Philip Graitcer in Merida, Mexico.

This week hundreds of scientists met in Atlanta, Georgia, to share the latest research on emerging infectious diseases. In a world where new diseases like HIV and SARS seem to come out of nowhere, researchers are looking at ways to control the ones they know of and make sure the public is aware of what's out there. Susanna Capelouto reports.

CAPELOUTO: Hundreds of people wander through a maze of posters and displays at a downtown Atlanta hotel. They are scientists looking at the work of other scientists. Melissa Mc Claired came all the way from Wellington, New Zealand.

McCLAIRED: "So, the title of the poster is protective effective maritime quarantine and South Pacific jurisdictions for 1918 and 1919 pandemic of Influenza."

CAPELOUTO: McClaired and her colleagues at the University of Ontago studied the death rate and quarantine measures taken by various pacific islands. They found that those who had quarantine for ships and controlled who could come on the island delayed the arrival of what was known as the Spanish Flu from three month to three years.

McClaired says the research is relevant, because its lessons could be applied to modern airports in New Zealand and nearby islands should a new flu pandemic begin.

McCLAIRED: "Yeah, what we did from here we have moved on and actually have done some modeling work, looking at how this would actually apply in modern day and working out some numbers about how long we would have to quarantine people for, for it to be successful to stop the influenza pandemic."

CAPELOUTO: The fear of an influenza pandemic also sparked an idea with researcher Patricia Fabian of the University of Massachusetts. She is looking for Influenza in exhaled breath.

FABIAN: "Basically what we are trying to do is see what kind of particles do people exhale and do they have virus in them. And what we found was that most of the particles that people exhale just during normal breathing are fairly small, and that these particles likely contain virus. So were able to isolate virus from them breathing for about 15 minutes in our collection device."

CAPELOUTO: Fabian worked with the University of Hong Kong where she found twelve patients with influenza. Four of them showed noticeable virus particles in their breath. It's long been the notion that coughing and sneezing are the way virus is transmitted through the air, and only in recent years did researchers find particles in normal breathing, says Fabian.

FABIAN: "We don't know that transmission occurs with just normal exhalation. We just know that we found virus in just normal exhaled breath. What we do now is studying to see [if those particles are] actually infectious and then later on study if we can transmit infection via those particles."

CAPELOUTO: Fabian is working with a team at the University of Massachusetts, including Professor Don Milton on whether wearing a surgical mask would block the virus particles. Milton says the ultimate goal is to find ways to keep the world operating during a pandemic.

MILTON: The idea is to figure out what kinds of things can you do that would be least disruptive in a pandemic so that the economy and society can keep functioning. So if you have to close the schools for eight months that's pretty disruptive."

CAPELOUTO: Disease specialists like those here at the Atlanta conference often rely on official reports to keep track of emerging infectious diseases. For the rest of us and for many researchers, too, a new online resource scours the Web and continuously updates a global disease map at HealthMap.org. Harvard Medical School professor John Brownstein is one of the researchers behind this useful new tool.

BROWNSTEIN: "It's a real time system. It runs every hour, 24/7. It's completely automated and it searches for outbreaks going on. And it looks for news reports in multiple languages like English, French, Spanish, Russian. And the idea is that it's a global system for both international travelers, concerned citizens, and governments, public health agencies."

CAPELOUTO: That map is also a great resources for the hundreds of scientists at this conference who are the ones studying emerging disease outbreaks and most of all how to prevent or contain them. For Our World, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

MUSIC: Richard Strauss — "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

And finally we note the death this week of writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, best known, perhaps, for one of the great science fiction screen epics, 2001: A Space Odessey.

The 1968 movie features an out-of-control computer named HAL and humans' first encounter with alien civilization.

Clarke wrote hundreds of books and articles. He also had the idea in 1945 of putting satellites into geostationary orbit, 20 years before the first communication satellite was actually launched into what is now called the Clarke Belt in his honor.

On his 90th birthday in December, he talked about his legacy in a video posted on YouTube.

CLARKE: "I want to be remembered most as a writer — one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well."

And that he did. Sir Arthur C. Clarke was born in England and died in Sri Lanka, where he had lived for many years.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Ted Landphair edited the show this week. Bob Doughty is the 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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