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Our World — 1 November 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Controlling the spread of disease in war-torn Afghanistan ... A Website of the Week U.S. election pick ... and some expert projections for the world's future ...

TUCKER: "You hear now about peak oil. Peak water in the 21st century is obviously of far greater concern. And so this is one of those forecasts that we hope people will act now to avert."

Those stories, training farm-animal veterinarians, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Human activity implicated in Antarctic climate change

British scientists say they have demonstrated that human activity is responsible for global warming, not only around the North Pole, but around the South Pole as well. They created a computer model of climate that includes data from Antarctica, where it's hard to collect such information. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: While studies are reasonably clear on the role of carbon emissions by humans in causing global warming in the Arctic, less is known about the causes of warming in the Antarctic because of its remoteness.

Some experts believe it is due to greenhouse gases while others believe changes in the Antarctic landscape are due to natural fluctuations in climate.

In a study in Nature Geoscience, an international team of scientists reports on the results of a new model they say proves the human footprint in global warming in the Antarctic.

The temperatures in the Antarctic were gathered along the coastal areas, according to scientists, because it is too difficult to get to the continent's interior.

When the temperature data from both continents were plugged into the model, scientists say it clearly showed the human effects of global warming in the South Pole.

MONAGHAN: "That's why this study is so important because it formally demonstrates the human contribution to [global warming] for the first time."

Andrew Monaghan is with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He wrote the "News and Views" article in Nature Geoscience.

In a teleconference with reporters, Monaghan said substantial warming has been detected along up to half of Antarctica's frozen coastlines that will lead to an even greater rise in sea levels.

MONAGHAN: "While nothing catastrophic is envisioned in the next century, there could be a substantial acceleration in the [ice] melt."

Monaghan expects the effects of global warming at the polls will continue even after humans stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Malaria control faces many obstacles, say experts

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, has been holding a series of forums on what they call "global challenges." Sustainable energy for developing countries. Containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. That sort of thing.

This week, the challenge was "solving the malaria epidemic."

Science journalist Joe Palca, who moderated the event, noted that 15 years ago, malaria got little attention in the American press. By contrast, a database search of just three major U.S. papers in the past three months turned up 120 mentions of malaria.

PALCA: "Now, that's not to say that each one of those was a major take-out kind of story, but I think that, at least to me, represents the difference between now and 15 years ago (or at least in a crude way I think it does), and maybe that will help explain why people are actually talking about eradicating malaria now."

Completely eradicating malaria — like smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s — is theoretically possible, but for several reasons it's a much more challenging goal.

For one, says Ripley Ballou of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, there is not just one malaria parasite.

BALLOU: "There are two predominant species that cause the vast majority of infections that afflict humans — Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, and they are very different parasites. And a tool, a vaccine for one will not work for the other."

Also, the life cycle of malaria is complex. That's good, because the chain can be broken anywhere as the parasite moves from mosquito to human. You can kill mosquitoes with insecticide or stop them from biting, for example with bed nets. But as Ballou points out, efforts at eradication have ultimately failed because it's hard to get it right.

BALLOU: "And during this process, the mosquito became resistant to the insecticides, the parasite became resistant to the drugs, and the resources that were brought to bear in the eradication program were not sustainable. And I think the combination of those three things led to the failure [of the eradication effort] and then the sense that it was hopeless."

Let's bring into the conversation Steven Phillips, medical director for oil company ExxonMobil. Exxon Mobil? What's malaria got to do with an oil company? Phillips explained that Africa is a major oil-producing region, and the company has some 4,000 employees there.

PHILLIPS: "And a quick-and-dirty risk assessment showed, surprisingly, that malaria was the number one risk faced by our employees."

Dr. Phillips says that in Africa., an estimated 60-80 percent of all malaria cases are not treated by a doctor or other health professional. But malaria is hard to diagnose, and he says it's counterproductive to use malaria drugs except to treat malaria.

PHILLIPS: "Otherwise you're going to wind up treating people that don't have malaria with drugs that are going to not only breed resistance, but you're not going to treat the real problem. And so one of the reasons that one out of five children in Africa do not reach the age of five is because, when they have a fever, they either go undiagnosed or presumptively treated for something that they actually don't have."

One strategy that has proved to be effective is insecticide-treated bednets. The ExxonMobil medical director said his company got directly involved in a novel program to distribute the bednets in four countries where they operate a total of 2,000 service stations.

PHILLIPS: "A pregnant mother would go to an antenatal clinic. She'd be given a voucher that would give about two-thirds off of a long-lasting bednet. She would then present that voucher to a local service station, and she would have a reliable supply — along with health education materials — from an Exxon service station."

The battle against malaria is important because the stakes are so high, as Ripley Ballou of the Gates Foundation points out.

BALLOU: "Five hundred million people around the world are infected with malaria every year, and somewhere between one and three million deaths [occur], most of these in children under the age of five. There are places where it has been eliminated, but not very many of them, so we really are talking about a global disease."

If you want to learn more about malaria, we'll have some authoritative links on our website,

Facing disease challenges in war-torn Afghanistan

Coping with disease is especially difficult in war zones and other areas in conflict. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, a prime example is Afghanistan — a country at war for the past seven years, and experiencing frequent conflict over the past few decades.

HOBAN: Fred Hartman has been working with a non-governmental organization to curb the spread of infectious disease within Afghanistan and across its borders into Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Hartman says his group, Management Sciences for Health, has focused on controlling six diseases — HIV, tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, polio, and avian influenza.

HARTMAN: "Avian influenza hit Afghanistan very hard in 2006. We know that came in from the northwest areas of Pakistan. In 2007 Pakistan reported human deaths, with human-to-human transmission, which heightened the concern in Afghanistan."

HOBAN: Hartman worked with the Ministry of Health in Kabul to convene a regional conference to draft basic principles to curb the spread of disease. That included agreeing on border controls, and in the wake of flu outbreaks, Kabul and Islamabad implemented new procedures.

HARTMAN: "For example in 2006 when avian influenza broke out in Pakistan, the poultry farmers would quickly ship all of their chickens to Afghanistan, and of course it was bred in Afghanistan. Both governments have worked together to seal the borders, knowing it's not in anybody's best interests to start shipping sick chickens around the region."

HOBAN: Hartman says this kind of cooperation has led to fewer cases of avian influenza moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also had the effect of reducing the number of people with malaria on the Afghan-Tajik border.

He says, though, that there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to controlling the spread of polio. Despite a worldwide effort by UNICEF, the disease is still appearing in remote places.

HARTMAN: "We have to conclude that despite serious cross-border efforts of notification of any cases of acute polio, immunization at the border for all children under five who are passing back and forth, that we have been unable to control transmission of the disease in that area."

HOBAN: Hartman notes the continuing violence in Afghanistan hampers efforts at controlling disease.

But Hartman says there's also reason for hope. He reports that local authorities — even those in Taliban-controlled areas — recognize the need to control the spread of infectious disease.

Hartman presented a paper on his experiences and his findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Diego.

Candidate information on our Website of the Week

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

Tuesday is Election Day here in the United States. In addition to choosing our next president, we'll be casting ballots for members of Congress, plus thousands of state and local offices. To help make their selection, many American voters will turn to the non-partisan candidate information on this week's Website of the Week,

ELM: "Project Vote Smart's website is really the only place that a person can come and get just the facts. No hype, no spin, no hidden agenda."

Adelaide Elm is a board member of Project Vote Smart. Since 1995 their website has provided a vast library of unbiased information about candidates for thousands of elective offices throughout the United States.

ELM: "We cover about 40,000 candidates and incumbents around the country. We collect their voting records, their campaign contributions, their public statements and speeches, their backgrounds [and] previous experience, and their ratings by competing special interest groups."

Elm says running for office is like applying for a job. If you're hiring someone, you want to know as much as you can about the applicants. Same way with candidates for office, and she says the vast amount of negative advertising doesn't really serve voters well.

ELM: "Most candidates spend much of their campaign time telling us how bad the other applicant for the job is going to be. So Project Vote Smart is fighting that tendency of the major parties and the campaigns and the candidates to twist and manipulate the facts and really get at the information that the people need to know."

The site is updated daily with candidates speeches and statements, and it's all fully searchable, whether you're looking for information about presidential candidates John McCain or Barack Obama, or candidates for Congress or state office. You'll find Project Vote Smart at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week including several other recent political selections, from our site,

MUSIC: "This Land is Your Land" — Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger

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

Futurists project changes in the years ahead

The World Future Society, based just outside Washington, is looking over the horizon to get us ready with forecasts, trends and ideas about the future. In the current edition of their magazine, The Futurist, they've collected some of the most intriguing forecasts for 2009 and beyond. I checked in with senior editor Patrick Tucker for some of the highlights, starting with a projection that by 2020, China will be the world's most popular tourist destination ... and also the greatest source of tourists.

TUCKER: Well, the future for China is very bright. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has said that China's economy is going to surpass that of the United States by the year 2035. And I absolutely think that the future of tourism can be very bright. Ideally, when you have a working economy, you have more people with leisure time, and it may not seem like this is something that's likely at the moment, but, you know, ironically, despite perceived loss of time over the past 10 years, the amount of leisure time people have has stayed roughly the same; we have about 40 hours of leisure time per week. And that's one of the reasons why travel may be a real bright economic spot in the future.

Q: One of the global trends is urbanization, and one of the forecasts is that urbanization will hit 60 percent by 2030. What are the implications in that?

TUCKER: Urbanization, we think of it as people moving to cities. But in a broader, economic sense, what that really refers to is people moving from an agricultural economy to a more modern, industrial economy. Without question, our global economy is going to shift more and more away from an agricultural economy toward an urban economy. And that's how you get that 'urbanization will hit 60 percent by 2030' number.

Q: Here's a projection that you came up with, that serious gaming will help train tomorrow's health workers. I can't imagine two things that seem, on the surface, to be more unassociated with each others. How so?

TUCKER: What the video game interface does is, it allows people to train virtually in techniques, medical techniques that formerly you would have to go to a classroom to prepare for. When you go to a heart surgeon, you don't want the heart surgeon to have read how to do it. You want someone to have had the experience of putting their hand in a chest cavity.

And what we today call games, and in many ways they will be enjoyable like games, but it's really a video game interface — what that does is it allows people to gain sort of immediate visceral experience in medical procedures that formerly you would have to go to a big medical campus to gain access to.

Q: Let's move on to another topic. Climate change figures in a couple of these forecasts. Climate change reducing the supply of fresh water; and the other half of that is desalination moving in to make up the gap. Can you talk about that a minute?

You hear now about peak oil. Peak water in the 21st century is obviously of far greater concern. And so this is one of those forecasts that we hope people will act now to avert.

You're going to be hearing a lot more about desalination as a means to fight against these water shortages, and nanotechnology is actually a factor in that. Nanotechnology, which is the science of extremely small materials, is going to play a big role in developing desalination technologies that are a lot more efficient.

Q: Finally, I can't not ask you about this one: it says, people will have more sex. Why?

TUCKER: (laughs) Yes, people will have more sex. There's a lot of reasons for this: women's growing economic power around the world. Women are feeling freer to express their sexuality. More women who are educated means a much smaller need for women to get married purely for the sake of marriage, and that means that more women will be choosy about their mate, and part of that information-gathering process is, to a certain extent, sex or conversations about sex.

People are going to live longer. The longer you live, it's not exactly rocket science: the more time you have for sex. As we look toward a lifespan of possibly 130 years, which may be a reasonable lifespan for someone born 30 years from now, you can imagine 120 years of unrestrained, hopefully safe sexually activity.

Patrick Tucker, senior editor of The Futurist magazine. We reached him at his office in Bethesda, Maryland.

Addressing the shortage of farm-animal veterinarians

Like many other countries, the United States is a lot more urban than it was even a generation ago. But we still have plenty of farms and ranches to feed America's appetite for meat and dairy products.

Farm animals need medical care, and this country has too few veterinarians to meet the need.

At Cornell University, about 400 kilometers north of Washington, professors in the veterinary college are helping to address the shortage, training a new generation of livestock vets and, in the process, providing animal health services to farmers in New York State. Véronique LaCapra reports.

LaCAPRA: There are nearly 88,000 veterinarians in the United States, but the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that only about one in nine works with farm animals — poultry, cattle, and other livestock.

Veterinarian Rodrigo Bicalho, an assistant professor at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, says a changing social demographic is behind that shortage.

BICALHO: "The impression that I have is that in the past most people that went to veterinary medicine were from rural areas of the country, and they wanted to go to vet school to learn about large animals, and then to come back to their local regions and work as veterinarians."

LaCAPRA: Today, only a small fraction of Americans work or live on farms, and most U.S. vet students come from urban areas. As a result, says Bicalho, they want to work with familiar pets like dogs and cats — not farm animals. And for vet students from the city, choosing a future on the farm may seem pretty daunting.

BICALHO: "The farmers usually start working very early in the day, and finish late, so we work hard hours, and we have emergency calls through the night.…"

LaCAPRA: To help relieve the shortage of farm animal vets, Cornell veterinary professors provide medical services to area farms. In central New York State — the region around the Cornell campus — that means treating dairy cattle.

BICALHO: "The routine visits are scheduled usually on a weekly basis or on a bi-weekly basis, and they involve a lot of pregnancy diagnosis. So the farmers are trying to breed the cows constantly, because producing milk is a mother's job, so the cow has to get pregnant and then have calves in order to continue to have milk. The large dairy farms that we go to — usually go on a weekly basis — and we will perform [from] 50 to 300 pregnancy diagnoses in a day."

"So that's Neil Rejman and his wife, that's the two owners."

LaCAPRA: At the Sunnyside dairy in Genoa, New York, about twenty-eight hundred cows depend on Bicalho and his colleagues for medical care.

BICALHO: "Usually cows have their calves on their own, they actually don't need much help. But as it happens to any species of mammals, including humans, sometimes they have complications during birth, and we try to correct those complications and still have a normal birth through the birth canal, but sometimes that's not possible."

LaCAPRA: When a cow isn't able to have a normal birth, Bicalho will perform a Caesarian section, right there on the farm.

BICALHO: "We do the anesthesia, tranquilization, and we actually remove the calf through the left or the right flank, depending on the position of the calf inside the cow."

LaCAPRA: Cornell students in their last year of vet school may accompany their professors on these calls. Bicalho says this is one of the ways that the university encourages students who are interested in farm animal medicine.

BICALHO: "Each clinician will have one or two students in the truck all the time, so we'll teach them on a one by one basis, and when we're performing procedures, they're actually doing a lot of it, under our supervision, so that they have hands-on experience of everything that we do."

LaCAPRA: Veterinarian Rodrigo Bicalho stresses the importance of his role as a teacher:

BICALHO: "The whole purpose of this entire clinic is to teach. We're inside a major college, and we're teaching veterinary students what we do, so that's the purpose of having the clients, is to pass the knowledge to them."

LaCAPRA: Cornell's responsibility in training new farm animal veterinarians could become even more critical over the next decade. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the supply of food animal vets will fall short of demand by as much as five percent each year, while the need for their services will continue to rise. I'm Véronique LaCapra.

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 show. Bob Doughty 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.