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Our World — 11 April 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: One American program to battle HIV/AIDS may have saved a million lives, and another one is just getting started ... A new vehicle that someday may drive itself ... and global warming hits Antarctica ...

JOSE RETAMALES: "A big chunk of ice just disappears in the water, in a couple of weeks. It is not there any longer. That is not normal. It did not happen before."

Those stories, a new weapon against malaria, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

US AIDS program saved 1 million lives in Africa, study says

Researchers at Stanford University this week reported that a five-year American effort to combat AIDS in Africa has saved more than a million lives.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, or PEPFAR, was launched by then-President George W. Bush in 2003. The $15 billion program focused on providing antiretroviral drugs to patients mostly in Africa, but also Vietnam, India, Russia, and others.

Eran Bendavid is lead author of the Stanford study, which looked at PEPFAR results in Africa.

BENDAVID: "During those years when PEPFAR was operating, the number of deaths in those countries was about 10 percent lower than what we would have expected absent PEPFAR."

PEPFAR has been controversial, in part because it focuses mainly on treatment, rather than prevention, and much of the prevention component is mandated to promote sexual abstinence. When Congress re-authorized the program last year, they tripled the budget to $48 billion, and removed the abstinence requirement.

AIDS has had a devastating impact in Africa, of course, and it remains a problem in the United States. But it isn't getting as much attention as it used to here, mainly because most people who are infected with HIV can take drugs that dramatically slow the progression of the disease.

Officials worry that too many Americans don't think much about AIDS any more, and the White House this week launched a new campaign that is about combating complacency as well as combating the disease.

"Right here in the United States … every nine and a half minutes … someone is infected with HIV."

That's part of an advertisement that will run online in the new campaign, called "Act Against AIDS."

The director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Melody Barnes, told reporters that the campaign will focus first on those most at risk.

BARNES: "The African American community, gay and bisexual men, and African American women."

Blacks are 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for half of new HIV infections, according to the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. Act Against AIDS will also include a Spanish language outreach to America's Latino community.

The campaign is a joint effort of federal public health agencies and private organizations, including 14 African American civic organizations.

The AIDS awareness campaign comes at a time when only 14 percent of Americans say they have seen, heard, or read a lot about HIV in the past year. That figure - down 20 percentage points in the past five years - comes from a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Act Against AIDS campaign includes a website,, where you can get information on how to protect yourself against HIV and AIDS.

New way to boost effectiveness of malaria drugs

Scientists may have developed a new weapon in the fight against malaria. A research team from the United States and Switzerland has identified a new chemical that can be used along with existing drugs to boost their effectiveness against malaria. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: For years, the drugs chloroquine and quinine have been front line treatments for malaria -- a mosquito-borne illness that causes between 1.5 and 2 million deaths each year. According to the World Health Organization, more than 90 percent of deaths occured in Sub-Sahara Africa, mostly among children.

Malaria occurs when a person is bitten by a mosquito that carries the parasite. But the malaria parasite has become resistant to chloroquine and quinine. And newer drugs, including artemisinin, are becoming less effective.

Jane Kelly is a senior researcher at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. Kelly, who led the research, says that in many areas it is difficult to monitor how people take anti-malaria drugs because of poor health care systems.

KELLY: "Like in Africa, for instance, because the health, the infrastructure for health systems is not the same as in this country [the United States], so you would just go to a clinic and maybe you would get some medicines and then you go home [and] you take one for a day, and then you come back."

BERMAN: Malaria parasites cause disease by invading red blood cells where they feed on an oxygen-carrying protein called hemoglobin. Anti-malaria drugs work by keeping the parasite from neutralizing a toxic byproduct of digestion.

But Kelly says the parasite gains the upper hand when anti-malarial drugs are taken sporadically. She says the parasite expels the drugs, causing resistance to medications.

Kelly and her colleagues have developed a compound that appears to block the ability of the parasite to expel anti-malarial drugs.

She says the compound readily cured drug-resistant malaria in laboratory mice. The compound seems to boost the effectiveness of several drugs that fight malaria, including chloroquine and artemisin. But Kelly says researchers still not entirely sure why the compound works.

KELLY: "Some of it is because that our drug will go in and then it will bind [to] that component [protein] that's trying to spit out all the other drugs. And in this way, that protein is occupied so it will not spit out the other drugs anymore."

BERMAN: Kelly says more animal testing is necessary before human trials can begin.

A paper describing the scientists' work is published this week in the journal Nature. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Mexico's pilot health insurance plan gets high marks

Officials in many countries say their governments are too cash-strapped to offer some form of health insurance to their citizens. But Mexico recently rolled out a program to protect poorer citizens from the expenses of a catastrophic illness. Rose Hoban tells us about it.

HOBAN: When a member of a poor household becomes sick, the illness can result in financial ruin, says political scientist Gary King, at Harvard's School of Public Health. King says just a few years ago, close to half of Mexico's population faced this kind of risk:

KING: "About 10 percent of poor families in the country suffered what they call catastrophic health expenditures. This is if you take a family budget, and you subtract a small amount of money for food, if more than 30 percent of the rest of that money goes to some big health expenditure, somebody has to have a big operation or whatever it is, and then they call that a catastrophic health expenditure

HOBAN: But a few years ago, the Mexican government introduced a program called Seguro Popular. They've been slowly enrolling people since 2003, and King has been monitoring its effectiveness.

The program is designed to protect families from catastrophic health expenditure by providing improved medical facilities in combination with more medical professionals to deliver the care.

King looked at what happened in communities where Seguro Popular has been rolled out. Before the introduction of the program, he and his colleagues surveyed tens of thousands of poor families.

KING: "So among the people for whom the program was intended, they actually signed up, 60 percent of the catastrophic health expenditures were eliminated just due to this program."

HOBAN: King says what's unusual about the program is that money intended for the poor is actually reaching them.

KING: "The vast majority of money that is intended for poor people in most countries actually doesn't make it to poor people. Even if you set aside fraud, you get better buildings and employees paid more and [better] government and things like that. And some money may make it But it is widely known that relatively little money actually makes it to poor people.

HOBAN: King says this program is different because of the way the Mexican government distributes the money:

KING: "They have a system that they call 'stewardship'... where they give the money to the localities but then the central facility will really watch. They verify and then they provide more money when the locality performs.

HOBAN: King says he's continuing to monitor the rollout of Seguro Popular to see if it remains effective as more and more people in Mexico are enrolled.

His paper is published online in the journal, The Lancet.

I'm Rose Hoban.

Videos about art on our Website of the Week

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

One of the great things about the Web is how it's helped to bring culture to the masses. There's no substitute for seeing great works of art in one of the world's outstanding museums, but if you can't jump onto a plane just now, you can check out our Website of the Week.

STEIN: "ArtBabble is a new streaming video website, which is dedicated to innovative and high quality video about art and artists. It's also a collaboration between some of the leading arts organizations in the country to bring together to lot of their award-winning content in one place."

Rob Stein is chief information officer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which hosts Their partners include New York's Museum of Modern Art, among other great institutions. And the videos on ArtBabble give you an in-depth look at all aspects of creating and displaying art.

STEIN: "We have a lot of different kinds of videos, from artist interviews to lectures about art, profiles of different exhibitions, installation of works of art - some of those are really great - all the way to profiles of security guards and people in museum administration. So there's a lot to see on ArtBabble."

A lot to see, and be sure to check out the time-lapse video showing installation of a giant Richard Serra sculpture in New York. And as Rob Stein points out, many of these videos look a lot better than you might have come to expect from the Internet.

STEIN: "We worked really hard to make the site able to stream hi-def[inition] video. So a good selection of the videos are really super high quality, but you can still watch them on your laptop over a wireless connection."

And be sure to check out the notes that appear alongside each video for a more in-depth experience.
Artists and their art on your computer at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: Hal McKusick - "For Art's Sake"

You're listening to VOA's artful science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Collapsed Antarctica ice bridge highlights global warming

European and American scientists this week reported the breakup of an ice bridge in Antarctica that has supported the Wilkins Ice Shelf.

The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center says the disintegration of the ice bridge will allow a mass of broken ice to drift free, where it will presumably melt in the ocean..

This is the latest in a series of ice collapses at the edge of Antarctica that have been attributed to global warming.

The news comes as scientists, diplomats, and others are in Baltimore for their annual meeting on the Antarctica treaty, which promotes scientific cooperation.

The meeting comes at a perilous time for Antarctica. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the latest developments in Antarctica underscore the urgency of addressing climate change.

CLINTON: "With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis."

Secretary Clinton said the 50-year-old Antarctica treaty is a key tool in addressing what she called "an urgent threat of this time"

CLINTON: "...climate change, which has already destabilized communities on every continent, endangered plant and animal species, and jeopardized critical food and water sources. Climate change is shaping the future of our planet in ways we are still striving to understand. But the research made possible within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty has shown us that catastrophic consequences await if we don't take action soon."

This week, VOA TV broadcast a series by reporter Janice McDonald on Antarctica, including one on how global warming is affecting the continent and how scientists there are studying the issue. Here's an excerpt.

McDONALD: Scientists say the thinning ozone layer over the South Pole causes climactic changes to occur more rapidly on the Antarctic Peninsula. They estimate changes happens three times faster here than elsewhere.

The French Polar Institute's Yves Frenot says this is why scientists monitor the area so carefully.

FRENOT: "In the Antarctic peninsula in the past 50 years, we estimate that the global warming temperature has increased by two or three degrees. So it's a very huge increase in temperatures compared to what happened in the past."

McDONALD: Compare that rate to elsewhere in the world, where scientists say it took more than 3,000 years to reach the same temperatures increase.

The head of Chile's Antarctic Institute, Jose Retamales, says the evidence of the change on the continent is apparent.

RETAMALES: "A big chunk of ice just disappears into the water, in a couple of weeks. It' s not there any longer. That is not normal. It did not happen before. So it means just perhaps a half a degree that temperature increase can mean big changes."

McDONALD: Frenot says the warming is of particular concern because the polar regions are known to foreshadow what will occur elsewhere in the world.

Because changes do occur faster here, scientists believe that by monitoring what is happening, they will be able to predict what will occur elsewhere.

And if they can… then they may be able to find ways of slowing those changes or preventing them altogether.

Janice McDonald, for VOA News, King George Island, Antarctica.

You can read and see Janice McDonald's full report, plus her two other stories on Antarctica, on our website,

The southernmost continent isn't the only place where climate change is having a dramatic impact, of course. Up around the North Pole, a 10-year warming trend is continuing, according to researchers.

U.S. scientists announced on Monday that satellite measurements show the extent of winter ice is likely to be the fifth smallest on record. Not only is winter ice near record lows, but the oldest and thickest ice is being replaced by newer, thinner, more vulnerable ice. Walt Meier is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

MEIER: "In terms of the thickest ice - the oldest ice, I should say - greater than two years old - that's been on a pretty big decline over the last couple of years. This is the lowest we've had at the end of the winter season, just under 10 percent."

Just under 10 percent, compared with as much as 50 percent just a couple of decades ago.

Melting Arctic ice doesn't contribute to rising sea levels, just like melting ice cubes don't affect the liquid level in a glass. But Walt Meier says the melting polar ice cap can affect wild life - think polar bears - and people who depend on them. Less ice in the arctic can also open the way to cross-polar shipping, at least in the summer.

OK, one final item from the polar regions.

American explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson reached the North Pole 100 years ago this week. Or at least they say they did. The achievement has been in dispute for years.

Their expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, whose chairman, Gilbert Grosvenor, said Peary's achievement echoes across the past century.

GROSVENOR: "Oh, I think Robert Peary's contribution to arctic exploration - in fact explorations of planet earth - has been immense. For several generations now explorers have looked to him as enthusiasm and motivation to go out and to do things…clearly his incredible stamina, his ability to survive under difficult conditions, to seek the unknown, to this day carries a lot of weight with would-be explorers… Wally Herbert, Will Steger, Tom Avery; these guys all looked to Peary for leadership and inspiration."

Perhaps Tom Avery, in particular. He recently recreated the controversial last leg of Peary and Henson's dash to the pole, using the same kinds of equipment, and demonstrated that the 1909 explorers could, indeed, have done it.

GROSVENOR: "Peary's critics always claimed it was impossible to dash to the Pole in the time that Peary did it. Well, Tom Avery proved that you could do that; He beat his time…and that takes away a little bit of the argument that Peary didn't make it…that combined with recent revelation that Peary's soundings along his trek were quite accurate…the photo interpretation..further enhance the argument that he probably got there. But Avery was able to solve that time issue which was huge - and still is huge - among explorers."

National Geographic Society chairman Gilbert Grosvenor spoke with my colleague Julie Taboh.

GM-Segway shows experimental electric urban vehicle

And finally today ... two transportation companies this week unveiled a unique experimental vehicle that might - or might not - revolutionize urban transportation.

One of the companies, General Motors, is an international collossus that has been in the news lately for its financial difficulties. The other, Segway, is a little firm that makes a high-tech electric scooter. The two partners have been working together for about a year and a half on a two-person, sit-down version of the Segway scooter. GM's Dave Rand explained.

RAND: "The whole focus and the whole purpose of the vehicle is for an urban environment. We don't see this vehicle designed for freeways, and the technology that's on board is really designed specifically for crowded urban environments and trying to deal with the problems of living in the city with a vehicle."

Well, cities are crowded and big cars are out of place, but the PUMA prototype is dwarfed by even a subcompact sedan.

The prototype showed up for a network television demonstration in New York. On TV it looks alarmingly fragile ... but enormously fun. Dave Rand says it's full of sophisticated technologies to make it safe and convenient.

RAND: "What these technologies enable is autonomous driving. And what that means is, the driver can elect to either drive the vehicle himself or allow the vehicle to drive itself to a destination."

Q: Wow, how would that work?

RAND: "Well again, the vehicle is constantly sensing where it is in the environment, and it also is sensing other vehicles within that environment. So the vehicle always is aware of its location. And if it's aware of its location, it basically doesn't need a driver to tell it where to go. So you could imagine that on a daily commute, you could get into the vehicle, tell it where you want to go, arrive at your destination, and then tell the vehicle to go park itself. And at the end of the day, when you want to return home, you could have the vehicle come and get you and take you back."

Autonomous driving: that's my kind of commute.

The little vehicle is expected to be able to travel up to about 56 kilometers on a full electric charge, using just 30 cents worth of electricity. Top speed: 56 kilometers per hour. Compared to the cost of buying and driving a conventional car, GM's Dave Rand says it will be a lot cheaper, and he says its size and cost might make it ideal for fast-growning megacities around the world.

RAND: "We're very much aware of a lot of major cities that already have this congestion and the impact that it has on people's lives. So, this vehicle is really designed from a global perspective for any major urban population [center] that has these issues."

No word yet on when you'll be able to buy one. But if we get a chance at a test drive, we'll let you know.

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That's our show for this week.

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Our World
Voice of America
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Rob Sivak is our editor. 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.