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Our World Transcript — May 7-8, 2005

MUSIC: Our World theme

CHIMES: Straight ahead on "Our World" ... controversy over a malaria update from the U.N. ... Preparing for the next flu season ... and the secrets of the songs of birds

KROODSMA: "Once you get to know these birds, know how they sing, what songs they sing and in what context, they are really telling you everything that is on their mind. They are telling their stories."

CHIMES: Why birds sing, the geography of medicine, and more ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The United Nations says more people than ever are getting malaria treatment and prevention services, offering hope that the rising number of illnesses and deaths from the parasite will begin to decline. The statement comes in the World Malaria Report for 2005. But critics argue that the UN agencies and its partners in the Roll Back Malaria program have been ineffective in fighting the disease. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: The World Malaria Report says progress has been made in preventing and treating malaria since 2000, when African heads of state set a goal of cutting malaria deaths on the continent in half by 2010.

Up to 90 percent of the world's one million malaria deaths and 300-million acute illnesses each year occur among African children under five years old. Those statistics have not changed since 2000.

But the report finds that more countries have intensified their anti-malaria campaigns by introducing the newest medicines, and that bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticides are being distributed to more people than ever before. The World Health Organization's Assistant Director General for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Jack Chow, says with help from the Roll Back Malaria partners, bed net use has increased tenfold over the last three years among all African countries reporting such data.

CHOW: "Already that partnership has seen compelling results by introducing innovative practices like combining measles vaccination with the distribution of bed nets. Already this partnership has distributed bed nets to 98 percent of families in Togo with a child under five years of age. It has in five districts in Zambia gotten bed nets to 60 percent of targeted families."

McALARY: Dr. Chow cites the malaria partnership's efforts to coordinate the delivery of the newest malaria medicines where the demand is highest. These are compounds based on the Chinese herb Artemisinin, which can treat cases that has developed resistance to established, cheaper drugs.

But the Roll Back Malaria partnership has come under stinging criticism. The private relief group, Doctors Without Borders, says only nine of 33 African countries that have decided to use the new drugs have actually done so.

In addition, a recent editorial in the medical journal "Lancet" charges that the consortium has done more harm than good. It says malaria rates have actually increased, and blames the partnership's poor coordination and lack of accountability.

Jack Chow says part of the problem is that the Roll Back Malaria program is underfunded.

CHOW: "We estimate that we need at least three-point-two billion dollars annually, with $2 billion in Africa to defeat malaria. Right now, we have an eighth of that, $400 million."

McALARY: One critic of the program agrees that more money would mean few malaria illnesses and deaths. But this critic, Roger Bate of the Washington policy research organization, the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the money that is available is not being spent on the best interventions. He favors the addition of indoor spraying, which, he says, is more effective than insecticide-treated bed nets.

BATE: "Bed nets are very good from the hours when you're actually underneath the net, but the anopheles mosquito, which spreads the disease, is active between dusk and dawn. There are many hours when a mosquito will be active between dusk and you going to bed, so the disease can be spread."

McALARY: But the World Malaria Report says it is too soon to measure the impact of malaria control strategies. The report predicts that a measurable effect should become apparent about three years after efforts become widespread.

In the U.S. Congress, Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican of Kansas, has introduced legislation to address what he calls the failure of the Roll Back Malaria program and the lack of U.S. contribution to malaria control. His measure would change the Bush administration's bilateral programs to require funding for proven interventions, including indoor insecticide spraying, effective medicines, and free bed nets. It would also require reporting of results in terms of illnesses avoided and lives saved. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington

CHIMES: Senator Brownback's bill, which also deals with tuburculosis and other diseases, would also forbid donations to countries that tax donated medical supplies.

U.S. officials say they are working to assure the supply of influenza vaccine to avoid a repeat of the faccine shortage during the last flu season.

Last October, British authorities stripped pharmaceutical company Chiron of its license to make the vaccine because of concerns about the manufacturing process at their plant in Liverpool, England. The company was to have supplied about half of all flu vaccine to the American market.

Dr. Jesse Goodman of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told the members of the House of Representatives this week that British and American regulators are working with Chiron to re-certify their Liverpool facility.

GOODMAN: "It is too early to predict the final outcome of Chiron's remediation activities, but nonetheless I can say the company has made significant progress in a short time. However, there are great demands in applying the necessary changes that have been made to full-scale manufacturing in a very tight timeframe. So this is the challenge that remains."

In addition, Mr. Goodman said US regulators have stepped-up their inspections of flu manufacturing facilities and will consider fast-track approval of new vaccines based on different testing protocols.

Although government experts believe it is likely that there will be enough vaccine in this season for everyone who wants a flu shot, Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says millions of Americans who should get the flu vaccine don't.

GERBERDING: "From our perspective as doctors and public health officials, we believe that about 185 million people [in the U.S.] need a flu shot because the science says they would have a serious benefit from it. In terms of the number of people who want flu [shots], that seems to be influenced by concerns about scarcity and concerns about the severity of the season.

Dr. Gerberding said the vaccine campaign will begin with high-risk people, such as the elderly. That way, the most vulnerable people will be protected if supplies run out.

The prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciencies this week announced the election of 72 new members. The list includes 19 women, the most ever. The number of women admitted to the National Academy has increased sharply in the past few years, reflecting the increasing number of women choosing careers in science.

The Internet began as a text-only medium. Today, it's a source of multimedia -- pictures, music, video. In fact, one of the only senses you can't get online is the sense of smell. And that's too bad as we surf on over to our Website of the Week, Sense of Smell-dot-org.

MOLNAR: "That we consider the gateway to the world of the sense of smell for the layperson as well as people in the industry or actually scientific researchers also use it to, you know, do their own research to see what's gone before and what they need to do."

Terry Molnar is executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute, the fragrance industry-funded organization that sponsors the Sense of Smell website. There's a substantial body of scientific research on the sense of smell. In fact, as you can see on the site's homepage, the most recent Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was given for research on the genetic basis of the sense of smell. Ms. Molnar says the website is a gateway to a lot of research on the topic.

MOLNAR: "The research that we have funded -- and there are about 50 studies listed on the website -- has to do with the effects of odors on human behavior, and does it relax you , can it help you sleep, and so on. And we know that it has these effects, that it definitely can elevate your mood, it can help definitely increase your performance.

In addition to the research studies, the Sense of Smell website has more accessible information for the general public, including information about loss of smell -- a medical condition called olfactory dysfunction -- and there are plans to expand a basic introductory course called Smell 101.

MOLNAR: "Within the next month or so we'll have several more lessons posted up there about how smell affects our sleep [and] about smell disorders. And all of those will have glossaries and links with them so people can get even more in-depth information."

Odors have deep emotional connections for many people, who might have powerful associations with the smell of their grandmother's apartment, say, or the strange and wonderful aromas of an exotic place you once visited. We can't promise that a mere website can deliver that kind of impact, but it might be worthwhile anyway to follow your nose to, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC - "That Smell" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

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

Time again for a question from an "Our World" listener. Christopher Konrad writes from somewhere in cyberspace, saying he's never seen a bird fall from the sky, and he wants to know if birds ever have heart attacks while in flight.

For the answer we turn to Prof. Roger Lederer at California State University in Chico.

LEDERER: "Oh, I'm sure they do. But you think about how many other animals you haven't seen. I mean, how many times do we actually observe the death of an animal of a heart attack, of natural causes, or even a person. It just doesn't happen very often, at least not often enough for us to observe it.

Birds may be built for flight, but Prof. Lederer says flying is physically challenging.

LEDERER: "Birds do have very high blood pressure and they have high heart rates, and they're subject to stress, and in flight it's certainly possible they have a heart attack, but it's unlikely you're just going to observe it."

So where do birds die, and why don't we see them? Roger Lederer says a lot of people think birds find some secluded place where they won't be observed.

LEDERER: "I get this question or some similar version of this question about every six months or so on my website: you know, how come I never see a dead bird, or do they go off somewhere? As far as I know, they don't go off anywhere. When birds do die, their skin is so thin, and their feathers are so light, their bones are hollow. They decompose very rapidly, so unless you see a bird dead on the roadside that just has been killed by a vehicle, you just don't observe dead bodies very often of birds."

Roger Lederer's very informative website, by the way, is, where you can learn more about birds, not just how they die.

Thanks to Christopher Konrad for sending in that question. If you have a science question, e-mail it to, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

As we mentioned last week on "Our World," researchers from Cornell University have just reported sighted of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker -- a stately bird that was considered extinct after its last reliable sighting in the 1940s. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, one scientist who has specialized in bird songs wants more proof. He wants to hear the bird sing.

SKIRBLE: The Ivory-bill is an enormous bird, with a meter-wide wingspan, a brilliant white bill and black plumage. The bam-bam-bam of its beak pounding on wood is heard in this 1935 recording. It has not been heard from since.


SKIRBLE: Renowned ornithologist Donald Kroodsma says visual images of the Ivory bill tell just part of the story.

KROODSMA: "I want to hear those unique calls just to know for sure, for absolute sure, that it is still with us. And I am a little troubled given the massive manhunt that they have put on in these southern swamps that they have not heard this bird more. I want to hear it."

SKIRBLE: Donald Kroodsma explores why birds sing and how to better understand their songs in his new book, "The Singing Life of Birds." The males mostly do the singing. They sing both to defend their territory, but also - and more importantly - says Donald Kroodsma - to attract fertile females.

KROODSMA: "I think of it as a competing songfest. The females are listening, making choices, and the males never know when the females are listening. So, even though she doesn't sing, she is really the composer of this whole orchestra. He is the performer. But he is just singing what she is demanding."

SKIRBLE: Donald Kroodsma - who is known to sit on the roof of his house early in the morning on spring days to record birdsongs - says birds speak their minds. The other day he stepped out his back door to eavesdrop on the conversation of two male Chipping Sparrows.

KROODSMA: "Hearing those two identical songs from these two males just told of their life story. It told where that young bird was getting its song. It said how old it was. It said where he is setting up his territory, the special relationship that this young bird had with the older bird. Once you get to know these birds, know how they sing, what songs they sing and in what context, they are really telling you everything that is on their mind. They are telling their stories."

SKIRBLE: Donald Kroodsma says tuning in to those tales takes practice. He suggests starting with a single bird and listening to the musical repertoire like this one from the Song Sparrow, a common North American bird.

KROODSMA: (SFX) "Wonderful! Hear those three buzzes at the beginning, a broad hissy sound, five whistles in a nice rhythm and a low sound. Here comes another one… (SFX) and another… (SFX). They are all so different. I love that bird. The first half-second of each of his eight songs is completely different from the first half second from any other song. So once you spend a little time with this bird you can recognize these songs easily within the first half-second of singing."

SKIRBLE: The bird kingdom has 10,000 species. Some birds recite long, complicated, seemingly never-ending phrases, while others sing for a few short seconds. Some learn their songs from family. Others mimic the dialogue of neighbors.

"The Singing Life of Birds" - part field guide and part diary - includes an audio CD and picture voiceprints for 30 birds in North America. Asked to pick a favorite, Donald Kroodsma turns to the Wood Thrush, which has two voice boxes. The song is recorded at one-tenth its normal speed, he says, to give an idea of what the bird hears.

KROODSMA: (SFX) "There's the left voice box, the lower one. There's the right one, the upper voice. Now the two together (SFX) isn't that priceless! Here's another example. (SFX) There is the left, the lower voice box and simultaneously then with the right (voice box) he is doing this (SFX). Now listen to the two together. Isn't that great harmony?"

SKIRBLE: Donald Kroodsma says The Singing Life of Birds is about connections, among songbirds but also between humans and the natural world. He hopes the book helps people to focus more carefully on that world and to work to ensure its healthy future. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

CHIMES: Finally, today mention the profession "geographer" and most people think of the traditional roles of mapmakers, or explorers studying exotic cultures. But geography now plays an increasingly important role in medical research. VOA's Keming Kuo wrote our report, which is read in the studio by Faith Lapidus.

NARRATOR: When Lee De Cola teaches a class, he often brings a projector filled with the images of dozens of colorful maps, showing how Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus or some other malady has spread across the United States. Mr. De Cola is one of just a few hundred medical geographers in America, so it's not surprising that he draws puzzled looks from those asking about his work:

De COLA: "When I meet people on an airplane, they say, 'Medical geography, that sounds interesting. What's that all about?' All I have to do is tell them, 'Have you seen a map about AIDS recently?' They say, 'Sure.' That's medical geography: 'the Why of Where.' Everything happens somewhere. So when we map it, it becomes much more illuminating to see a map of something, instead of talking about it in the abstract."

NARRATOR: Although medical geography became an official specialty area a few decades ago, its roots may actually be traced to ancient times. Mr. De Cola, a research scientist at the U-S Geological Survey, says it all started with the Greek doctor Hippocrates, known for his Hippocratic Oath, which emphasizes: "Above all, do no harm."

De COLA: "Many of the phenomena we now call geography influenced people's health. The quality of the water, the atmosphere, what lifestyles people had, what they ate… What health they had was determined by geographic phenomena. Here was a scholar writing 2,000 years ago about the very same issues we're talking about today."

NARRATOR: In the mid-19th century, British doctor John Snow used medical geography principles to locate the source of a cholera epidemic in London, as Mr. De Cola explains:

De COLA: "He showed a map of cases of cholera clustered around a pump that led him to suspect that it was the pump itself that was the source of polluted water that was giving people cases of cholera. So hat was medical geography.

NARRATOR: Mr. De Cola says the crossover has spurred more cooperation between geographers and such health organizations as the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]:

de COLA: "The collaboration is really growing and it's in its very early stages. I was down at CDC last year and realized that not only could we take information about diseases and make maps of it, but we can turn that process around -- and start asking spatial questions and use spatial information to help organize the information itself."

NARRATOR: Thus, Lee De Cola and other medical geographers are combining a variety of social, economic and environmental data with the source and spread of disease:

De COLA: "Putting all these things together, we [ask], 'Is there something unusual going on here? Is it an outbreak of a mosquito-borne disease? A bio-terrorism event? An oil spill here?' Something like that."

NARRATOR: In the future, Mr. De Cola says medical geography will continue as an important part of medical research which, itself, will experience fast growth.

De COLA: "Bio-medicine is an exploding field. The American economy devoted over a trillion dollars to personal and public health expenditures. That number is increasing much more rapidly than the economy as a whole."

NARRATOR: Lee De Cola is one of the small-but-growing number of medical geographers who are using the analytical and mapping science of geography and applying it to medical research.

That report was written by Keming Kuo and read by Faith Lapidus.

That's our show for this week. Got a science question? If we answer it on the show we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

Our World
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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director this week is Kevin Raiman. 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 Our World.