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Straight ahead on "Our World" … a flu warning from the UN ... plate tectonics and the shape of the Earth ... and a dismal future for our feathered friends --
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"They declined 95-99 percent. And right now, these birds, which were among the most common birds in the Indian landscape, are now almost impossible to even observe."
Birds going extinct, plus a question of malaria. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
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Tens of millions of people died in the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Experts warn it could happen again. So, at a W orld Health Organization meeting this week, they agreed on a strategy to try to prevent or contain a global flu outbreak that could again kill millions. Lisa Schlein has more on the story from Geneva.
SCHLEIN: The experts say it is not a question of if, but when the next influenza outbreak will strike. The head of WHO's Global Influenza Program, Klaus Stohr, says widespread outbreaks of disease - or pandemics - are natural recurring phenomena.
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"Knowing that the next pandemic will come, we feel that we should be prepared and there are certainly several levels of preparedness which countries can take, which global organizations like WHO can take, which industry can take."
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SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization has set up a so-called epidemic nerve center. Its staff tracks epidemics such as SARS, Ebola, meningitis, typhoid and Avian Flu.
Angus Nicoll of the health protection agency in Britain says since the epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Illness, known as SARS, people in all parts of the world are looking for outbreaks of this and other infections.
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"It was essential for us to see that other countries have got the ability to pick up these infections where they start. And, they may not just start in Asia. We have seen in the past two years, outbreaks of bird flu in the Netherlands and in Canada. So, you have got the possibility that it may be emerging first in an industrialized country as well."
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SCHLEIN: Dr. Stohr says the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu in Asia poses the biggest risk for the next pandemic. This year 44 people were infected with the virus, 33 of them died. He says the fact that this virus has the ability to infect humans makes it dangerous.
Dr. Stohr says those countries that have people infected with the virus should report this immediately to WHO and should take measures to contain the disease.
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"We also recommend to countries, if there was clusters of outbreak of cases that they would try to isolate patients, would have good hospital infection guidelines to make sure that there is no further transmission. And, for each of the other phases, there are very detailed recommendations to reduce morbidity, mortality, to slow down the spread and to buy time to implement other measures."
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SCHLEIN: Dr. Stohr says progress toward a bird flu vaccine is being made, but drug companies will not be able to produce enough vaccine for everybody in the world. (signed)
CHIMES: Research by a Stanford University scientist projects that one-tenth of the world's bird species will disappear by the end of the century, with another 15 percent of species close to being wiped out. And the main reason is the impact of human development on natural habitats.
"Compared to pre-human levels, the extinction rate has definitely escalated by hundreds if not thousands of times compared to natural background extinction rates."
In fact, researcher Cagan Sekercioglu says the die-off of species in modern times is comparable to the mass extinction of 65 million years ago, when many scientists believe an asteroid hit the earth and essentially wiped out the planet's dominant life form, the dinosaurs.
Of the bird groups he studied, the most at risk are the scavengers, mostly vultures, and the decline is seen in bold relief in India.
"In the past decade, they declined 95-99 percent. And right now, these birds, which were among the most common birds in the Indian landscape, are now almost impossible to even observe. And this seems to have had some major consequences, and one is an observed increase in the number of feral dogs."
The dogs are also scavengers, but they're not as good as vultures at cleaning the carcasses, which increases the risk of the decaying remains contaminating water supplies. Feral dogs also transmit rabies, which is a huge problem in India, with about half the world's deaths from the disease.
Another avian group at great risk is fish-eaters, like the albatross, found on islands and in coastal areas.
The decline in bird species, itself a result of environmental changes, is expected in turn to bring about other changes in natural ecosystems because of birds' important role in pollination and seed dispersal.
To a great extent, the language of science is the language of mathematics. Students planning a science career are obliged to take lots of math courses, and a little mathematics knowledge helps sort out some of the complexities of modern life, from interest rates on loans to the statistics behind an opinion poll in the news. If you're feeling mathematically-challenged, Our World would like to recommend our Website of the Week, MathForum.org.
"It's an online educational community that supports learning of mathematics and teaching of mathematics, pretty much arithmetic through calculus. And in particular, we help young learners get support outside of the classroom from professionals in the workplace, volunteers to mentor students online."
Steve Weimar is the director of MathForum.org, hosted by Drexel University in Philadelphia. Website features include a Problem of the Week, a section for math educators called "Teacher2Teacher," and the popular "Ask Dr. Math." MathForum.org dates from 1992, so there is a tremendous amount of archived content, and unlike many other fields, good mathematics doesn't go stale.
"We receive questions that students and teachers and parents submit online through the website, and we respond to those, either by writing new material in answers to help or by pointing them to [what is] by now an archive of over thousands of questions and answers that have been written over time."
Steve Weimar says there really isn't a "typical" user of MathForum.org.
"We have two-and-a-half million visits a month, and it seems that, out of that number of visits, we pretty much cover the range, so I would say it's fairly evenly distributed, as you would expect, among students, teachers, and citizens - parents and others."
So whether your interest is advanced calculus, or just trying to help your kid with his geometry homework, the equation for success could be MathForum - all one word - MathForum.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: New Math by Tom Lehrer
There's new evidence that American dietary habits aren't good for the waistline. A study in this week's Jama, the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that immigrants who've been in the United States for a number of years are fatter than those who recently arrived. VOAs Maura Farrelly reports.
FARRELLY: As Americans have become bigger, and the negative health effects of obesity have become more apparent, medical researchers in the United States have turned their attention to the topic of why people are fat. So far, most studies have considered only the native-born population. But for Mita Sanghavi Goel, a medical professor at Chicago's Northwestern University, her study of immigrants and obesity was prompted, in part, by her own family.
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Just in looking at my own family, my parents are immigrants, and when I looked at their wedding pictures and then looked at them, I sort of wondered, Something has changed. That might be true in many, many families, but I thought about that in the context of an immigrant lifestyle in the United States. (0:13)
FARRELLY: For newly-arrived immigrants, obesity is not a major problem - just 8 percent are obese, compared with 22 percent of native-born Americans. But after a number of years, the immigrant population starts to look a lot more like the native-born. Dr. Goel found that among immigrants who've been in the United States for 15 years or more, the obesity rate was 19 percent- almost as high as the native population.
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We found that this was true for foreign-born whites, foreign-born Latinos, and foreign-born Asians. We didn't see this association for foreign-born blacks, and it could be we just didn't have a large number of foreign-born blacks in our population. (0:11)
FARRELLY: So what's causing this? Dr. Goel's study didn't attempt to answer that question, but she and others in the medical community say it isn't too difficult to figure out. There's a lot of food to be had in the United States, and much of it is processed and full of fat and sugar.
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As people move to this country, there's certain foods that are more readily available.
FARRELLY: Dr. Alan Tso is a physician who works with immigrants at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City's Chinatown.
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It's very different from some of the villages in China. And so meat is more readily available and so on and so forth. So a lot of immigrants, [when] they come over, they change their diet habit. (0:12)
FARRELLY: They also change the way they eat, according to Xiao bin Li, an immigrant who's been living in the United States for almost fifteen years. Ms. Li says in China, most people eat their main meal in the middle of the day, and then have a light dinner before going to bed. But in America, people are working too much during the day to eat a major meal.
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So that's why [you] eat just a small lunch. But after a whole day of work, when you go home, you want a big dinner. After dinner, you only lie down, then sleep. No exercise or something.
FARRELLY: It's not clear that immigrant communities recognize that excess weight is a problem. Researcher Mita Goel says very few immigrants visit a doctor about their weight, and Dr. Alan Tso says this may be because of cultural misconceptions about chubbiness.
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Again, it goes back to economics, basically. You know, people who are more well-off, in China, at least, in the old days, you know, they have a rounder face, because they eat better, right? That's the symbol of wealth.
FARRELLY: Dr. Tso says this misconception is having an impact on children. He recently completed s study of more than 300 children, all born to immigrants living in the United States. And he found the youngsters were more likely to be obese if they'd been born after their parents had arrived in America. For Our World, I'm Maura Farrelly.
MUSIC: Fat Man by Jethro Tull
Food for the brain that's non-fattening, this is VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Let's dig into the Our World mailbag and try to answer a question sent in recently by listener Emmanuel Benson in Tanzania.
Mr. Benson asks if it's true that there is no malaria in Western countries, in the United States or Germany for example.
Good question. The World Health Organization says a million people die from malaria each year, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa, and hardly any in wealthy countries in temperate climates. I spoke with Professor Dawn Wesson of Tulane University's Department of Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. She confirmed that, these days, malaria is virtually unknown in the United States.
"Currently there is little malaria in the U.S. We have a certain amount of introduced malaria every year, but most years there is very little locally-transmitted malaria, that's true. [When you say introduced, this is people who have acquired the disease somewhere else and then come into the country?] Yes, they've typically traveled to some area where malaria is being transmitted, and then they come home and they're diagnosed there."
At one time, however, malaria was quite common in the United States. Dr. Wesson says getting rid of it required work on a number of different fronts, from medicine to flood control projects.
"Historically, there was malaria in the United States. So it's really been the advances that have been made in understanding how transmission occurs, and then changing the local environment to get rid of mosquito breeding sites, to treat people who were infected with the malaria parasite, and to sort-of combine those approaches and get rid of the parasite. We still have the mosquito, but we no longer have the parasite."
The anopheles mosquito that is the most efficient carrier of the malaria parasite is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. And that region lacks many of the resources needed for the expensive public works projects to eliminate the mosquitoes' breeding grounds.
We're sending listener Emmanuel Benson a little VOA gift as our way of thanking him for his question. If you have a question about science, technology or health, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or listen for the postal address at the end of the show.
Geology is a science that is often taken for granted. It conjures up images of guys with their little hammers, flecking off bits of rock to be examined with a magnifying glass. But geology is, of course, all around us, and geological processes are responsible for the mountains, the oceans -- the very shape of our planet.
Richard Fortey is a British palentologist whose book, Earth: An Intimate History, brings the planet's geology to life. He stopped by recently for a chat about, well, the Earth. Central to his book is the discussion of plate tectonics, which began winning widespread acceptance a half-century ago thanks to new technologies and new discoveries.
(interview not transcribed)
Richard Fortey's book, Earth, an Intimate History, is published by Knopf.
Before we go, a program note.
Our World will not be heard next Saturday. Instead, we'll have some special VOA Christmas Day programming. But our Sunday broadcast is not affected, and you can hear Our World after the news at seven hours UTC and again at 11 hours next Sunday. We'll be back with our normal Saturday schedule on New Years Day.
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That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, we'd like to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.
Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next time as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.