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Straight ahead on "Our World" … The health benefits of olive oil ... Melting ice and the disappearing krill ... and concerns about the safety of mobile phones ...
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"Can the possibility that long-term use would have some health effects be absolutely ruled out? No. Is there any reason to expect such effects, the answer is also no."
A listener's concerns addressed, plus an international broadcaster switches to the Internet. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
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Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed this week with breast cancer -- one day after her husband -- the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, John Edwards -- was defeated in his bid for the country's second highest office.
Mrs. Edwards is one of about one million women worldwide who will get that diagnosis this year, according to World Health Organization statistics. The WHO reports that breast cancer is at least twice as common in high-income countries as in other parts of the world, and indeed, an estimated one-fifth of the new cases each year -- more than 200,000 of them -- occur in the United States alone.
The particular form of breast cancer in Mrs. Edwards' case - invasive ductal carcinoma - has a high survival rate. Like most cancers, the earlier it's diagnosed and treatment begun, the higher the likelihood of success.
Cancer surgeon Alisan Goldfarb, of New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, told NBC News that the traditional benchmark of cancer treatment - survival for five years - is too conservative.
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"Breast cancer is, as most cancers go, a very curable cancer. And we don't like to stop at five years. We would like the patient to die of another disease at their normal time - meaning, we're looking at someone who's 55, we're looking for a 40-year survival rate."
Possibilities for treatment of Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer include surgical removal of the cancerous tumor; a full mastectomy, or breast removal; chemotherapy and radiation.
In our election this past week, some 120-million Americans went to the polls, many of them using electronic touch-screen voting machines for the first time.
As we reported last week on "Our World," some computer scientists had expressed concern about whether the computerized voting systems could be trusted.
Some critics are still concerned that there is no way to verify that the numbers reported by the machine at the end of the day accurately reflect the votes cast. But although there were a few isolated malfunctions on election day, there were no reports of widespread failure of the machines.
Ocean animals in parts of Antarctica are facing a food shortage. Many of them depend on small, shrimp-like creatures called krill for food, but a new British study finds that krill populations have been declining since the 1970s. As VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington, the researchers link the decline to the loss of winter sea ice and, possibly, global warming.
Krill are one of the most important animals in the Southern Ocean food chain. These tiny shellfish -- up to six centimeters long -- feed on microscopic sea plants called phytoplankton. In turn, they are consumed by a wide range of ocean animals, including fish, whales, seals, penguins, and some birds. They are also a potentially valuable source of protein for humans.
But the British Antarctic Survey has found a dramatic drop in krill populations in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula, a region with half of all the Southern Ocean's krill stocks. The agency compared krill records gathered by nine countries since 1926.
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"We found in that sector, there was a large scale decline. It was about, very roughly, an 80 percent decrease in krill abundance in the last 30 years."
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That is British Antarctic Survey marine biologist Angus Atkinson, the leader of the krill study that appears in the journal "Nature." Along with decreasing krill stocks, his team found a matching decline in the amount of Antarctic Peninsula sea ice in the winter. They say the reason for this apparent link may be that krill larvae depend on the ice for food and shelter from predators in order to grow into adulthood.
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"The krill need to survive the winter period when there is very little food in the water column and at that time, the sea ice is a critical resource for the baby krill to survive the winter. That is because there is a carpet of algae attached to the underside of the ice, which acts as a concentrated source of food. The overall decline in winter sea ice seems the explanation."
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The British Antarctic Survey notes that global warming appears to be the cause for the sea ice melt. Temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by two-and-a-half degrees Celsius in the last 50 years. This is about five times more than the average global temperature rise.
Mr. Atkinson says if krill stocks fall too low, there might be detrimental effects on animals that feed on it. This is especially true of whales, whose populations already are low because of commercial hunting, now banned by an international whaling moratorium.
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"After that rapid depletion of whale numbers, other krill predators such as fur seals increased quite dramatically in abundance. So if whales are going to become reestablished in Antarctica, we imagine they would have to compete with all these other higher predators, and also they will be faced with greater scarcity of krill."
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Mr. Atkinson says two recent studies show that the krill decline is already having an impact on some Antarctic penguin species, adversely affecting their foraging patterns and breeding numbers.
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You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
A new survey indicates patients in several industrialized countries with national health care programs are more satisfied with their care than patients in the United States, where most people's health care is arranged privately or through their employers. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports from Washington.
The survey of patients in five industrialized nations finds that Americans are the most inclined to say their health care system needs to be reworked, with one-in-three calling for a total overhaul.
That was the finding of a telephone poll of 14 hundred U.S. patients, who were asked to discuss their perceptions of their health care system. In addition, the survey polled the same number of patients in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where every citizen has access to a government health care program.
Cathy Schoen, a vice president of The Commonwealth Fund, which commissioned the survey, says Britons are the most likely to give their health care system high marks.
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"(Patients in) the United Kingdom are most satisfied, the least likely to call for rebuilding their system, the most likely to say the system works basically well, a pattern that has persisted over six years, but grown more positive since 2001."
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It's a finding that may be surprising to many Americans, who commonly think nationalized health care leads to long lines and compromised quality.
But the survey of patients' perceptions paints a different picture. Britons say they pay less to visit a doctor than their counterparts in the other survey countries, and they often are able to see a doctor the day they call for an appointment. In addition, Britons reported the fewest instances of inaccurate test results, and said they were quickly notified of any problems revealed by their tests.
Health policy experts caution that the results of this study are based only on patients' perceptions of care, not documented facts about each nation's health care system. But they believe the study can help policy makers develop ways to deliver what people want from their health care systems.
Ms. Schoen explains that part of health care dissatisfaction lies in the cost of medical care. The survey finds that more than one-quarter of Americans surveyed report spending more than a thousand dollars on medical bills in a year.
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"On the other end of the spectrum, the U.K. stands out as the most protected, with the majority of patients saying they had no out-of-pocket costs.
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In each country, some people report that cost prevented them from seeking out medical treatment. The issue is most severe in the United States.
But Ms. Schoen says cost is not the only barrier to medical care. Many Americans and Canadians say it is difficult to get a doctor's attention on nights, weekends or holidays.
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"The U.S. and Canada also stand out on this measure as the most likely to say they went to the emergency room because they didn't have access in the community. I might point out these are the same two countries least likely to have same-day access to their doctors."
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Meanwhile, the majority of New Zealanders and Australians say they were able to get an appointment right away the last time they were sick. Forty one-percent of British patients say the same.
Canada's assistant deputy health minister, Ian Shugart, attended the launch of the study. He says health care reform requires more than a quick fix.
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"When the patient itches, we need to be prepared to scratch there, but with the right policy solutions that will support reform in the long term."
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Health care reform was a major issue in the just-concluded U.S. presidential election campaign, with the Democratic Party candidate John Kerry advocating the creation of a government-sponsored health program and President Bush favoring more modest reforms. President Bush's re-election likely means there will not be any major restructuring of the U.S. health care system during the next four years. But he has talked about finding ways to reduce costs, and says he is committed to ensuring that patients and their doctors make health care decisions, without government interference.
In the Our World mailbag this week is a letter from a listener in Imo State, Nigeria. Jefferson Ndugbu wants to know about the medical risks of using mobile phones.
For the answer, I spoke with John Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who studies how mobile phones can affect the human body. As you would expect from a scientist, the answer to whether the phones are safe is not a simple yes or no.
"With mobile phones, as far as we know, they're reasonably safe if used as intended. Can the possibility that long-term use would have some health effects be absolutely ruled out? No. Is there any reason to expect such effects, the answer is also no."
The question has been studied a lot, and most of the research has found no provable link between mobile phone use and cancer or other illness.
Although experts stress that there is little danger, you might still have some nagging doubts. After all, experts once said the earth was flat, right? So if you are worried, there are things you can do. Talk using a headset or earpiece, rather than holding the phone up to your ear. But remember that even if the phone is clipped to your belt, it's still transmitting back to the base station. Which brings up another way to reduce your concern about mobile phone use.
"One of the ones that isn't obvious is, don't talk in a place where you get a bad signal. The poorer signal they get from the base station, the more powerfully they broadcast back."
Our listener, Jefferson Ndugbu of Nigeria, who asked that question will be getting a special VOA gift because we answered his letter on the air. If you have a question about science, health, technology or the environment, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.
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Because they emit electromagnetic radiation, mobile phones -- like X-ray machines and microwave ovens -- are regulated by the U.S. government's Food and Drug Administration. The F.D.A.'s responsibilities also include cosmetics and animal feed. Much of what the agency does has a legal effect just in the United States, but the information they generate makes the F.D.A.'s work of interest to a much broader audience. And that's why their online home, fda.gov, is Our World's website of the week.
"You can find information on everything from foods and food safety and nutrition to the latest approved prescription and over-the-counter drugs to medical devices - everything from toothbrushes to X-ray machines, and even animal feed and drugs for pets and for livestock. So the wealth of information is pretty astounding."
Bill Rados (RAY-diss) runs the Food and Drug Administration's website. He says that the usefulness of the information to non-Americans is apparent from the site's user profile.
"About 28 percent of the visitors to our website come from other countries, and the last data we have showed visitors from about 200 different countries around the world, so obviously folks are finding information that they need."
At FDA.gov you can find guidelines on food safety, information about nutrition and hearing aids and blood products and bioterrorism and so on.
Two and a-half million unique visitor each month visit the Food and Drug Administration website, and if you'd like to join them, surf on over to FDA.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
The FDA this week gave the go-ahead for olive oil makers to claim that their product may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Olive oil is a traditional part of the diet around the Mediterranean, and many consumers prefer it on the basis of taste alone. In New York, VOA's Adam Phillips has been savoring the implications.
At Dean and Deluca's, a gourmet food supermarket in the trendy Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, Jeff Cammarata points to a gleaming set of shelves filled with shiny new bottles of olive oil -- almost too many varieties to count. Mr. Cammarata says he is delighted, but not surprised, that the government has officially recognized that olive oil brings health as well as good flavor.
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"I've known that for years. Since I'm Italian, I've been having olive oil since I was a little kid, so I'm actually quite happy it's finally been proven…. We'll probably see an increase in sales."
TEXT: Technically, the F-D-A's decision allows manufacturers of olive oil and food products containing olive oil to claim on their labels that consuming the so-called "mono-unsaturated" fats in those products lowers the risk for heart disease when compared with foods containing so-called "saturated" fats.
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"I think it's great. I think it will ultimately help people to eat more of a Mediterranean diet -- since a lot of the Mediterranean recipes require olive oil."
TEXT: That's Michelle Luhan-Nordberg, a dietician who works with the cardiac rehabilitation unit at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. She explains why unsaturated fats in olive oil are more healthy for the body.
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"It's a liquid fat, so it's easier for the body to break down and absorb. Monounsaturated fats -- we know from extensive study and research -- can help increase your 'good' cholesterol, which is something the body needs for many functions. But it also helps the body get rid of the 'bad' fats in your body.
"Those 'bad' fats can ultimately, over time, clog the arteries.... So we want get these bad fats out of our body. And mono- unsaturated oils found in olive oil and other plant-based foods can help with that."
TEXT: Also, Ms. Luhan-Nordberg adds, olive oil is a natural food.
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"Olive oil, unlike some of the other commercial oils, is cold-pressed, so you're going to have a lot more anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidants protect your cells from stress, from oxidation [and] from pollution. So it's a very rich food. It's also very palatable. It tastes good!"
TEXT: Precisely because olive oil is so delicious, Ms. Luhan-Nordburg cautions moderation in its use. She says Americans tend to think that because something is healthy, consuming more and more of it must be better, too.
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"… Once we find out that something is good for us we tend to abuse it and take too much of it. Whether it's a tablespoon of olive oil or a tablespoon of butter, it still has 110 calories. So be wise!"
TEXT: After all, says Michelle Luhan-Norburg of New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, obesity is now America's number-one health problem. [For Our World], this is Adam Phillips reporting.
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