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Our World — 17 May 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... The vast web of systems affected by climate change ... getting the AIDS drug combination right ... and the sheltering mangroves of America's tropical paradise ...

BERRY: "All these little fishes — grouper, snapper — all the baby ones come and hang around in there so the big fish don't eat 'em. It protects 'em. It's real good for the fish to come and spawn in here and stuff."

Those stories, the media's blind spot on "neglected" tropical diseases, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. officials Wednesday formally listed the polar bear as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act.

They're threatened with extinction because they spend much of their time breeding, hunting and feeding on arctic sea ice, ice that's melting as a result of global warming.

Global warming is having a vast effect on many of the world's natural systems, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature.

The study was a collaboration among researchers on five continents. Lead author Cynthia Rosenzweig of Columbia University and the U.S. space agency NASA says they found a pervasive impact from what has been, so far, a relatively modest increase in temperatures.

ROSENZWEIG: "You know, we did this from 1970 on, and there's only been about, like, 0.6 degrees warming in that period. But when we see, when we bring all these changes together, all these observed impacts, we see that even this low amount of warming is showing us that global warming is having an effect."

The impact of human-caused, or anthropogenic warming was seen in nearly every aspect of the "machinery" of planet Earth, in studies that looked at glaciers, forests, the oceans, and more. They ruled out trends that could be explained by factors other than climate change.

ROSENZWEIG: "We look at the impacts around the world, the database with more than 29,000 series that are showing changes, again, that aren't due to natural variability, that the responses are consistent with warming and that something else didn't cause the change, like for example, cutting down trees to have agriculture instead of forests that could have had an effect on, let's say, the species."

The study focused on what scientists call site-based data, measured on the scene, as opposed to satellite data. The problem is, there are a lot more measurements made in Europe or North America than in other regions. Rosenzweig says it's important to collect more data in the understudied regions, to find out what effect climate change may be having there.

ROSENZWEIG: "It's very important as we go forward — and I'm using 'we' in the broadest sense of all scientists around the world — that we do many more studies about the changes that the warming is having. Because there is anthropogenic warming in Latin America, in Africa, where so many developing countries are. But of course the research funding hasn't been there to look to see what the effects are being so far."

Cynthia Rosenzweig spoke with us from her office in New York. She was a contributor to last year's report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which focused on the impact of global warming.

The most effective anti-AIDS treatments use a combination of medicines. It's sometimes called a drug cocktail. There are different combinations, and they each have different benefits and side effects, often varying from patient to patient.

Now, there's new research comparing several different drug cocktails, and the results could help doctors as they choose the right treatment for their patients. VOA's Jessica Berman reports on the new study, which was published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

BERMAN: While there's still no cure for AIDS, and new anti-HIV drugs become available, doctors keep puzzling over which combinations of drugs to prescribe to their patients to halt the progression of the deadly disease.

Sharon Riddler, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, says there's no consensus over which combinations of antiretroviral drugs work the best.

RIDDLER: "And it becomes important as we have better options to really have direct comparison."

BERMAN: Riddler led a study by an international team of researchers that compared the effectiveness of two, triple-combination therapies to a two-drug combination therapy in suppressing the virus.

Both three-drug regimens included older drugs approved early on by U.S. drug regulators and are often used around the world.

In a study involving 753 patients in 55 countries, investigators found that both triple-drug combinations and the two-drug combination worked well to suppress the virus and slow progression.

But the three-drug combinations with the older medications performed better than the two-drug cocktail.

Riddler says the most effective three-drug combination included a drug called efavirenz.

RIDDLER: "We found that the regimen that I think is the most commonly used regimen now is indeed safe, well-tolerated and effective. And I think more effective than the alternative regimens that are available."

BERMAN: While that's good news for people in developed countries who can afford efavirenz, the drug is out of reach for many people in the developing world because it is too expensive.

Gus Cairns is with the European AIDS Treatment Group, an HIV drug watchdog organization.

Cairns says nivarapine is the antiviral drug of choice in poorer countries because it is cheap. But he thinks that should change because efavirenz is more effective at keeping the AIDS virus in check.

CAIRNS: "There is some evidence that nivarapine is nearly as effective as efavirenz. But really why not go for the best drug available?

BERMAN: Cairns thinks the makers of efavirenz should lower the cost as they have with other anti-HIV medications. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

HIV/AIDS is one disease that gets a lot of attention. It affects millions of people, and major drug companies devote a lot of effort to finding new treatments, in part because patients in wealthy countries can pay the price.

But what about the diseases that mainly affect poor residents of developing countries?

As we hear from Rose Hoban, a new study helps explain why the World Health Organization calls these "neglected" tropical diseases.

HOBAN: When health journalist Mangai Balasegaram was working at the World Health Organization, she noticed that many tropical diseases rarely got attention in the media.

BALASEGARAM: "There are 14 of them and they cover quite a wide spectrum, and they're fairly prevalent in the developing world. Probably about one in six people in the world suffer from at least one or more neglected tropical disease."

HOBAN: These include several kinds of parasitic diseases, such as Chagas disease — a life-threatening condition affecting people in Latin America, and sleeping sickness in Africa.

BALASEGARAM: "It doesn't cause immediate death, but you slowly, slowly die, and you basically fall asleep a lot but you also go mad. So you can also start attacking your own relatives. And your family and the society generally shuns you and you basically have a horrible death."

HOBAN: Balasegaram reviewed major newspapers and media outlets around the world, counting up how many articles about neglected tropical diseases were printed or aired over a two-year period.

She did not include Voice of America in her research.

Balasegaram found that there was inconsistent coverage given to tropical diseases. For instance, one media outlet did several dozen stories on neglected diseases, while others did none. Interestingly, Balasegaram found that neglected diseases got a lot of attention in some financial publications.

BALASEGARAM: "That's something I didn't expect. They have been covering that issue because of Bill Gates putting a huge amount of funding towards neglected diseases and various things that are going on financially. So I thought that was pretty interesting that that's been coming up, and they've picked up on that."

HOBAN: She also spoke to reporters who told her that they had difficulty doing stories on these diseases. Their editors said they weren't of interest, or the people suffering from them lived too far away. Balasegaram says this is shortsighted, because these diseases take such a toll on lives and economies. She says they need more attention, both from the media and from health officials.

Her research is published in the online journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. I'm Rose Hoban.

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

This week it's an online exhibition of design innovations that are helping improve lives in developing countries.

Mention "design" and you probably think of fashion or architecture. But it also includes industrial design — how manufactured products look and work. Most designs are done for the richest 10 percent of the world's population. Our Website of the Week is about Design for the Other 90%.

SMITH: "The designs that were exhibited here really addressed the underpinnings of poverty — better access to education, better access to water, transportation, health care, food. And so a lot of those solutions come out of technologies that were developed for the [wealthy] 10 percent."

Cynthia Smith is a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and creator of last year's museum exhibition of those innovative solutions and the continuing online version at other90.cooperhewitt.org.

The website focuses on more than 30 products designed to meet the needs of some of some of the world's poorest people. The products include water filters to prevent disease, a cargo-carrying bicycle, and a cooler that uses locally-made pottery and evaporation, not electricity, to keep stuff cool.

SMITH: "Tomatoes that had lasted only three days before now last up to 21 days. And this has real impact. Young girls, women, are usually tasked with taking the produce to market, and this frees up their time to pursue education, which is one way that people can begin to emerge out of poverty."

Another product featured in the exhibition that you can see and read about at Design for the Other 90% is a prefabricated emergency shelter. There are also technology products.

SMITH: "You'll have something like the Kinkajou portable library and projector, where these designers are using either emerging technologies like solar power or LED lamps, or they look to abandoned technologies, something like microfilm."

Also featured on the site: the famous One Laptop Per Child computer, a rugged, battery-powered laptop designed to sell for about $100 apiece and which is being privately promoted as an educational tool for schools in developing countries. Most if not all of these innovative designs are already at work throughout the world, improving lives one family at a time. Learn more about Design for the Other 90% at other90.cooperhewitt.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Felix Tod & David Ayers — "Kolkata to Kashmir"

It's radio for the other 90 percent on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Next, a biofuel crop you may never have heard of, but which could provide significant benefits in the years to come.

You probably know that Brazil makes a lot of ethanol from sugar cane, and in the United States we make a lot of ethanol from corn, or maize. But there's another sweet crop that may be the next big thing in biofuels. Dr. Mark Winslow of ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, stopped by VOA this week to explain.

WINSLOW: "Sweet sorghum is a crop that produces grain at the top of the plant, and then the stalk has a sugar-rich juice in it And you can squeeze the juice out and make ethanol with it to power vehicles."

Q: Sweet sorghum is different from sorghum?

WINSLOW: "It's a different variety of the same crop. It's still sorghum, but it's certain varieties that have this sugar-rich characteristic in the stalk, like sugar cane."

Q: To what extent is it being used today as a biofuel?

WINSLOW: "It's in the startup stage where there are new industries starting in several countries, especially India is probably the first one that is in commercial production to grow this crop and harvest it and extract the juice and make ethanol from it."

Q: Wo what's the process, how does it work?

WINSLOW: "Well, you grow it like a normal crop, and then you harvest it, you carry it to what they call a crushing facility. The juice comes out, and then you bring that juice to a distillery where they ferment it with yeast. It's just like making wine. It converts all the sugar to ethanol. And then you have to distill that ethanol out of the rest of the 'soup' so you get pure ethanol for powering your car."

Q: So do I understand this correctly: that in the biofuel process that you would crush the stalk, but you would still have the grain and the crushed stalk available for commercial purposes?

WINSLOW: "That's right. The grain is normally used for human food and the crushed stalk for livestock food, and it can be resold as livestock feed by the distiller or it can be returned to the farmers, depending on the arrangement, commercial arrangement they agree to."

Q: Sweet sorghum today is being grown and it's being used as a sweetener — What is it being used for?

WINSLOW: "Well, sweet sorghum is on a very small scale, it's used as a syrup. But the much bigger crop is grain sorghum. But traditionally both the grain and the stalk are valuable to the farmers in Africa and Asia, and this is why adding a third component can raise their incomes as well as still producing that grain and that feed for animals that they depend very heavily on for dairy products and meat and so on in these dry areas of the world, where the poorest people in the world live."

Q: About one-quarter of the US corn crop now is going to ethanol, and that's cited as a contributing factor to rise of food prices internationally. Is there any indication as — because we're just in the startup stage — as to what sweet sorghum as a biofuel would do to food prices?

WINSLOW: "Well, it shouldn't have any impact on food prices. In fact it should increase the availability of grain that people consume in developing countries because the economic stimulus of this biofuel industry will lift the yields, so it should actually be positive for food supplies. But sorghum isn't traded internationally so it won't have the kind of impact internationally that corn has had."

Q: So are we talking in terms of the future or are there actual operations on the ground, working today?

WINSLOW: "Well, the interest is recent and it's really gearing up very rapidly. It has to do with the fact that ethanol is now profitable because of the steep rise in oil prices. So there are startup agreements going on in the Americas and Mexico, in China, in several countries in Africa. And probably India is the most furthest advanced right now. So it's a wave that's coming up.

"Africa has been waiting for a green revolution, and the whole world is interested in stimulating a green revolution in Africa. And this involves helping farmers connect to markets, to be able to sell commercial products. And in exchange for that, using technology that lifts the production considerably in order to meet the needs of those markets. And this is one example, I think, where at least in the world of sorghum, in these critically-poor, dry areas, the poorest countries in the world, that they can pick up this option and see a real transformation of their agriculture."

Dr. Mark Winslow of ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, headquartered in Hyderabad, India.

Sweet sorghum is one of several crops with ethanol potential. Researchers are also working to find a viable way of making cellulosic ethanol. That's ethanol made from the fibers of plants, not the sweet, food part. If a commercial process can be developed, agricultural waste, rather than food crops, might be the ethanol feed stock of choice.

And finally today: mangrove trees. They grow in costal areas throughout the tropics. They provide an important habitat for young fish, protect the coastline from erosion, and play an important part in the ecosystem where they live. But as we hear from reporter Ann Dornfeld in the Caribbean archipelago known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, the mangroves are being threatened.

DORNFELD: It's a brilliantly sunny, gusty day on the island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Local fisherman Stanley Berry has backed his motorboat into an opening in this quiet mangrove bay.

BERRY: "I [am] going [after] yellowtail snapper tonight. I'm doin' night fishing. See if I can catch something tonight, God spare life. I see he's got a hurricane blowing out here today. Twenty-five mile an hour [40 kph] wind!"

DORNFELD: Berry says the red mangroves around this bay serve as a sort of daycare for the young fish he'll eventually catch.

BERRY: "If you have to snorkel around and check it out, you'll notice that all these little fishes are different type of grouper, snapper, you name it, all comes and all the baby ones come and hang around in there so the big fish don't eat 'em. It protects 'em. It's real good for the fish to come and spawn in here and stuff."

DORNFELD: And the mangroves are "real good" for the rest of the bay. As they anchor in the sediment of the shallow water, the mangroves' tangled roots catch sediment from the land before it can seep into the water. Above the tide, mangroves' dry branches are home to birds and lizards. And mangrove forests provide a buffer zone that protects inland areas from storms moving in from the ocean.

David Olsen is director of the U.S. Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife. He says island natives understand the value of the mangroves. But he says developers aren't as appreciative. One company wants to rip out the red mangroves on this bay for new construction.

OLSEN: "They would basically line the entire area with condominiums, have docks basically filling the entire bay, eliminate all the traditional use, and plant a little fringe of black mangroves."

DORNFELD: Olsen says developers are required by law to leave or replant some mangroves. But there are many types of mangroves, and the species the developers want to plant don't extend their roots into the water, so they can't serve as fish nurseries. This is a problem all over the islands.

BOULON: "We have lost, in the Virgin Islands, probably 50 percent of our mangrove areas over the last half a century."

DORNFELD: Rafe Boulon is Chief of Resource Management for the Virgin Islands National Park.

BOULON: "Anytime people fill land, typically they're filling mangroves because they're selecting nice calm bays and that's where the mangroves are."

DORNFELD: Boulon says Mangroves are in much better shape on St. John, a 30-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas. That's because most of this island is a national park.

DORNFELD: Alfredo Quarto is director of the Mangrove Action Project. He says mangroves are being destroyed all around the world. Often, they're removed to build shrimp farms. Quarto says shrimp farming is often presented to local people as a source of jobs and food. But he says the loss of the mangroves means destruction of fish habitat, and the local fisheries are destroyed.

QUARTO: "Most of the people are forced to leave their homes, because they can no longer fish. And the shrimp that's raised there, along these coasts, is shipped abroad. Is shipped to the northern, wealthy countries. Because they're selling [wealthy buyers] the cheap shrimp, the local people have no food."

DORNFELD: Quarto says it's not just fisheries that are lost when mangroves are destroyed. Coastal areas also lose protection from violent storms.

QUARTO: "Like in hurricanes in India in 1999, a major cyclone came into the Orissa Coast area and killed over 10,000 people. The people that lived behind the mangroves by and large were not affected by that same cyclone. Ones that lived in areas that were denuded or degraded mangrove areas were killed."

DORNFELD: Mangroves that have been torn out or damaged can be replanted. But Quarto says people trying to restore mangroves often plant just one species in places where there are supposed to be many kinds. The Mangrove Action Project is teaching people that the best way to restore mangroves is to scatter the plants into the waves. That way, the tides distribute the baby plants as they would in nature.

Back in the Virgin Islands, Rafe Boulon says for people those new to the islands, a mangrove forest can seem like a swamp. It releases methane gas as leaf litter decomposes. And the roots collect trash that floats in from sea.

BOULON: "So hence, if they're dirty and smelly there's no really good purpose for them. However, they're very, very important ecosystem here."

DORNFELD: The trick is to get that message to the many people who are building new homes in the Virgin Islands. That includes the United States' biggest generation ever of retirees, lured by a tropical paradise that relies on the mangroves.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edited the show. Eva Nenicka 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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