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MUSIC: Our World Theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... New worries over avian flu as the virus shows up in migrating birds ... women, aspirin and vitamin E ... and unsolved mysteries in science
NORMAN: "We now know that the fraction of the universe that you can acturally see, the stars and galaxies, is just a very, very tiny fraction of what's there."
Those stories, rising sea levels, dinosaurs on our Website of the Week , and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
Reports published this week could signal a new chapter in the evolving story of avian, or bird flu. The disease, which has killed more than 50 people, has appeared in chickens and other poultry. Millions of birds have been killed as a preventive measure. Now, scientists have identified the deadly virus among migrating birds in western China, with a warning that they could spread the virus rapidly beyond its current stronghold in Southeast Asia. VOA's David McAlary reports. McALARY: The sick and dying waterfowl can be easily spotted at the Lake Qinghai nature reserve. If not paralyzed, they stagger and have tilted necks, classic symptoms of avian flu in such birds. The outbreak was first detected on April 30 and within three weeks, it killed about 15 hundred birds, mostly geese, but also two gull varieties. Now, the World Health Organization estimates that about six thousand have died. In a new paper in the journal Nature, Chinese scientists say this is the first evidence that avian flu transmission has spread beyond domesticated poultry into wild bird populations far away from farms. Hong Kong University researcher Yi Guan says the expansion could signal an even further spread of the disease once the flocks begin migrating from the Chinese lake. YI GUAN: "You already know we have a big problem in Southeast Asia. Now this has become a new challenge for us." McALARY: Mr. Yi and colleagues say the infected bar-headed geese at the lake are capable of flying over the Himalayas at a range of 16 hundred kilometers a day. That migration will not be long in coming. Microbiologist George Gao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing says the birds breed at the lake from the end of April only until the end of July. GAO: "So they are flying out, soon. The problem is if there is any carrier, they might carry this to Tibet, India, and Southeast Asia. So that is something we're worried [about]. But whether or not some survivors will carry the virus, we don't know yet." McALARY: Mr. Gao's team reports in the journal "Science" that they isolated several viruses from the birds and found that each shows the genetic hallmarks of a highly virulent strain. According to the "Nature" article by Yi Guan's group in Hong Kong, it is closely related to the strain that has infected poultry and people in Thailand and Vietnam. Public health experts fear that it will merge with human influenza in a patient and create a strain that more easily circulates among people and causes a global pandemic that kills millions. World Health Organization spokesman Dick Thompson says the birds at the Chinese nature reserve should be watched closely. THOMPSON: "There's an urgent need to sample and tag and track as many of these species as feasible, especially considering the narrow time frame that we've got available to do it. We need more information on the migratory routes regarding these birds."
McALARY: The World Health Organization has urged China to increase its testing of the wild geese and gulls. (SIGNED)
Publication of this latest research on avian flu comes as United Nations agencies released a plan for action at the end of a three-day conference in Malaysia. Recommendations include segregating animal species on farms, minimizing contact between animals and humans, and providing adequate compensation for farmers whose flocks are slaughtered due to disease, to ensure that bird flu outbreaks are reported promptly.
And a spokesman for the World Health Organization, Peter Cordingley, said such measures were vital to turn back the threat of a pandemic.
CORDINGLEY: "If we do not do anything, the situation will worsen to the point that inevitably - we do not know when - this virus will develop into a pandemic strain."
Donor nations will be asked to contribute $100 million to combat avian fuel, with more than half of that going to combat the disease in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos.
For years, many doctors have been telling women to take daily doses of vitamin E to protect against heart attack and stroke, as well as several common forms of cancer.
But now, a massive 12-year study involving almost 40,000 women has concluded that the vitamin E supplements don't protect healthy women as a group.
LEE: "In the Women's Health Study, we found that vitamin E supplementation had no overall benefits in terms of preventing heart disease and cancer in healthy women."
But lead researcher I-Min Lee of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston says one group of women do seem to benefit from daily doses of vitamin E. Women over age 65 did show a decrease in heart attacks and heart disease-related deaths — though not stroke — compared to women who did not take the vitamin supplement.
The head of the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which helped fund the study, said women should focus on proven means of preventing heart disease. Dr. Elizabeth Nabel said those include "leading a healthy lifestyle and controlling risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol."
The study was published this week in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.
In a separate paper in JAMA, the question was whether low-dose aspirin could protect against cancer. The study involved the same group of some 40,000 women. In this case, those who took aspirin were just as likely to get cancer as those who didn't, except that the aspirin group did have a slightly lower risk of lung cancer. Nancy Cook is the lead researcher.
COOK: "Overall, we found no protective benefit of aspirin on cancer in general. It would be much easier to just take a pill, but I think everyone has to buckle down and lead a healthy lifestyle, not smoke, eat right and exercise."
The aspirin dose was 100 milligrams every other day, and the researchers conceded that a higher dose might have a protective effect.
Dinosaurs have long captivated our imaginations, but if you learned about dinosaurs in school years ago, as I did, it's time to update your information. Some of the latest research on these fascinating creatures, who ruled the world more than 65 million years ago, is featured in an online exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and it's Our World's Website of the Week
Exhibit curator Mark Norell was in New York this week, between expeditions in northeastern China, where he and his Chinese colleagues have been studying evidence not just of dinosaurs but the flora and fauna that lived alongside them, wonderfully preserved, and reproduced in the museum and online in a detailed diorama of Liaoning Province 130 million years ago.
NORELL: "We have all facets of an ecosystem preserved, everything from plants to insects to fishes to mammals, and some of the things really make it so spectacular is that, in addition to preserving the bones, it preserves soft tissues, so that we can see that a lot of the non-avian dinosaurs were covered with feathers, and we can reconstruct these in incredible detail."
You can even hear what Dr. Norell says is a pretty good approximation of what the dinosaurs' world sounded like.
The online exhibition closely tracks the actual exhibit at the musuem in New York, but as Dr. Norell points out, it's not exactly the same.
NORELL: "Y'know of course, you can never replace the actual objects with an online experience, but they will get a lot of the interactive components of the exhibit. In some cases they'll even be able to get some better looks at things, up closer than they'll be able to see in the exhibit itself. And they'll be able to go into some of the concepts that are in the exhibit a little more deeply than they would if they just came to the exhibit itself."
Like the exhibit in the museum, the online exhibition features interviews with paleontologists, including Dr. Norell, to help give visitors a sense of how science works.
NORELL: "We try to put much more of a human face on science, and also to try to show that science is really a process, that it's always changing and that people are always learning new things, we're always disregarding old ideas , and that even that there's contradictory viewpoints in a few cases, that some people feel that the data points to one thing while others feel that the data points to another thing."
There are also lesson plans and other material aimed at teachers, lots of great pictures, and much, much more fascinating science here. The full name of this online exhibit is "Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries, and it's online at amnh.org/exhibitions/dinosaurs, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: When I'm 64 (John Pizzarelli)
It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington
The U.S. space agency NASA may be best known for launching astronauts into space, but scientific satellites are also a big part of its mission. Thanks to the new technology, scientists can now get highly accurate sea level data from across the planet.
On Thursday, scientists from NASA and elsewhere briefed reporters on the latest findings about how rising global temperatures are affecting sea levels around the world.
About half the rise in sea levels can be attributed to what scientists call thermal expansion ... ocean water expands as it gets warmer. The other half, explains Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado comes from several other sources —
NEREM: "And the predominant source of that change is water coming from the continents or from the land and moving into the oceans. And most of that is due to ice melt of mountain glaciers and ice in Greenland and Antarctica."
In the old days, water temperature had to be measured directly along coastlines or by ships at sea. Sea levels were monitored by tidal gauges at water's edge. Today, several satellites, plus what will eventually be three thousand robotic floats around the world's oceans in the Argo Project, provide much more complete and accurate data than ever before.
Over the past decade, ocean levels have risen by about three millimeters a year — not much, perhaps, but about 50-percent more than the average rate over most of the past century.
Twelve years of continuous satellite data show some ups and downs, but the trend suggests rising sea levels, and possibly an accelerating rate of increase. That may be because some effects of higher temperatures create new ways to speed the flow of water trapped in ice in Antarctica and Greenland into the ocean. NASA's Eric Rignot explains.
RIGNON: "One is the warmer air temperatures melting more ice and producing more meltwater into the ocean. And two, that meltwater is able to reach deep into the glacier bed and increase the lubrication of these glaciers and allow them to flow faster and discharge ice to the ocean faster than they ought to be.
In 2002, Antarctica's Larsen-B ice shelf collapsed into the ocean. That itself had no effect on sea levels, since the ice was already floating in the ocean. But Dr. Rignot says it can indirectly contribute to a rise in sea level because of what happens to the ice in glaciers behind the ice shelf.
RIGNON: "We've seen these glaciers speed up by a factor of two to eight in response to removal of the ice shelf. And the reason for that is that the ice shelf is acting like a plug on these glaciers, and once you remove it from melting, the glaciers flow much faster and discharge much larger quantities of ice into the ocean."
One area in Antarctica where this may already be happening, says Dr. Rignon, is Pine Island Bay, where enough water is trapped in glacial ice that, if melted, would raise the ocean level by a full meter.
Climate change was on the agenda at this week's G-8 summit. Alone among the leaders there, President Bush has stressed the need for more research on global warming, and the United States has not agreed to targets on limiting greenhouse gases.
Most scientists agree there is already ample evidence that global temperatures are rising, while at the same time it's hard to find a scientist who would argue against more research. While satellites and other tools only available in the past decade or so have given researchers much more data to work with, Professor Richard Alley of Penn State University says it's tough to build a theoretical framework to model the behavior of glaciers, contrasting it to the not-inconsiderable difficulties of modeling the weather.
ALLEY: "If you're trying to predict the weather, you look at how air moves, and we sort-of understand that. If you're trying to predict sea level change and predict ice sheets, you have to know the physics of ice. Those physics are inherently a little more complicated and there's pieces of them that we don't know yet."
As scientists try to understand the processes involved in changing sea levels, and policymakers debate whether to do anything about it, there are real world implications for people living on islands and in coastal regions worldwide, says NASA's Waleed Abdalati.
ABADALATI: "Oceans have been rising and falling for hundreds of thousands of years as climate has warmed and cooled, and ice sheets and glaciers have grown and shrunk. And today's no different in that respect. But what is different today is, many people are living in low-lying, vulnerable coastal regions. And in fact, it's estimated that 100 million people would be impacted by a three-foot rise in sea level."
Three feet is about 90 centimeters. Even smaller increases in sea level could force millions from their homes, or require billions of dollars worth of dikes and other protective measures.
Here on Our World we often report on the latest research published by the journal "Science." Well, Science magazine is celebrating its 125th birthday with a special issue that takes stock of some of the fundamental and still unsolved mysteries of our time. The magazine's editors compiled 125 questions that point out the gaps in our scientific understanding of the universe we live in. VOA's Rosanne Skirble spoke with a Science editor about their choices.
SKIRBLE: Inventor Thomas Edison founded Science Magazine in 1880. Today, as the weekly publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it boasts the largest circulation of any scientific journal in the world.
News editor Colin Norman says instead of looking back at papers published over the last 125 years, the magazine decided to tap the expertise of more than 100 reviewing editors to help it compile a list of 125 questions that focus on the limits of our knowledge - questions such as, 'What is the universe made of?'
NORMAN: "We now know that the fraction of the universe that you can actually see - the stars and galaxies, is just a very tiny fraction of what's there, and there is a lot of dark matter that we know is there that is holding the galaxies together. Some of this is just regular matter, but a lot of it [is] particles that we don't know what they are yet."
SKIRBLE: Editor Colin Norman says other questions are much more specific.
NORMAN: "Can we produce an HIV vaccine that is effective? A big problem that has tremendous social consequences."
SKIRBLE: Editors found that questions are not so simple and one leads to the next. Take, for example, the human genome, the hereditary DNA sequence first mapped five years ago. Scientists were puzzled when they discovered humans have just 25,000 genes, much less than the 100,000 they had expected.
NORMAN: "So, having asked that question how many genes do we have, we now have to answer the question, 'how can we be so complicated with so few genes?' And it has to do with how the genes are expressed, the way the genome is controlled, and so there are a whole series of really interesting questions that are opened up. Another one is a question that we phrased this way: 'How can a skin cell become a nerve cell?' Scientists have always wondered how it is that an embryonic [stem] cell can become any kind of cell in the body and the signals that steer that development into particular kinds of tissues. That has always been a huge question in biology, but it has become much, much more pertinent now that we can take stem cells and culture [grow] them."
SKIRBLE: Science Magazine News Editor Colin Norman says the 125 unanswered questions reflect a sense of wonder about the unknown.
NORMAN: "What genetic changes made us uniquely human? What is the basis of consciousness? How are memories stored and retrieved? How do we remember our addresses, but forget where we left our keys? How did cooperation evolve? All of those things are really intriguing questions that not just scientists, but everybody else wonders about. Are we alone in the universe? How did life on earth begin? All those things are fascinating questions."
SKIRBLE: Even though the magazine came up with a symbolic number of questions on the occasion of its 125th year, Colin Norman admits they are only a small fraction of the puzzles that scientists are actually struggling to solve. I'm Rosanne Skirble.
The Internet has changed life in so many ways. It's amazing what you can do on-line these days. Play poker at a gambling site. Share baby pictures with your cousin in Australia. Buy music MP3s or tickets to a show next week at your local cinema. Some people order medicine online and now, some American doctors — who quit making house calls years ago — visit with patients online in what are called "e-visits." From Portland, Oregon, David Welch explains.
WELCH: For most Americans, a visit to the doctor is a lengthy process. They may have to take time off from work, get to the clinic or medical office, then wait until the doctor is available before they can even begin explaining why they're there. But, do patients really have to go through all that?
KILO: "Undoubtedly, fifty to seventy percent of the cases in primary care, the answer is no, they did not really need to be there."
WELCH: Chuck Kilo heads a medical practice in Oregon that specializes in e-visits. Dr. Kilo says on-line consultations aren't much different from office visits. Patients with chronic ailments like hypertension or diabetes usually came to see him just to have their charts reviewed. Now, he uses email and electronic spreadsheets to monitor their blood pressure or insulin levels.
KILO: "We never want to be caviler about the quality of care that we deliver, on the other hand a lot of what we do in primary care can be done electronically or over the phone."
WELCH: Advocates of e-visits, like Jack Freedman, CEO of Providence Health Plan, say the technology allows everyone to benefit. Patients can get medical advice quickly, securely and confidentially online, directly from their primary care physician.
FREEDMAN: "Jumping in your car, taking an hour and a half off work, going to the doctor's office, waiting 35 to 40 minutes to see your primary care doctor for a seven and a half minute or eight minute visit isn't always the most productive way to get your primary care needs met."
WELCH: Providence Health Plan is one of just a growing number of insurance companies that covers e-visits, paying doctors the same amount they receive for traditional office visits. And without the small talk and patient hand holding, E-Visits save time, which means doctors can take on more patients.
Chuck Kilo points out online consultations can reach well beyond monitoring chronic ailments. He has many patients who use email for routine medical questions… and some who use digital cameras to take pictures of a rash or bump and send them to his office for medical advice.
KILO: "I saw somebody who came in this morning, she had basically an allergic reaction around a band-aid that had been applied. Had she snapped a picture of this, and shown it to me, I could have easily told her over email 'Yeah, it is what we think it is, no reason for you to worry about battling through traffic and taking off work and coming in for me to tell you it's likely an allergic reaction'."
WELCH: This type of care concerns Monique Levy. She's a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, a consulting firm that helps clients evaluating the impact of new technologies on their business.
LEVY: "It's hard to tell whether they're going to get all the information that they would be able to get from non-verbal cues or seeing the patient or monitoring and taking other types of vital signs. So, there's a risk that they're not going to get a whole picture of what's going on with the patient."
WELCH: Ms. Levy says this leaves doctors and insurers vulnerable to lawsuits, if - for example - a treatment based on that 'partial picture' proves harmful. That risk, along with the high cost of setting up an online practice, has kept most doctors and insurers out of the e-visit business. But patient interest is growing, which means virtual house calls could soon be just a click away. For Our World, I'm David Welch in Portland.
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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.