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Our World Transcript — September 3, 2005

This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... public health concerns in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans ... A step ahead in the fight against Mad Cow disease ... and harnessing the envionment to help the poorest of the poor ...

JHIRAD: "We are offering a hopeful message here, an optimistic message, but the challenge is, how do you scale it up, how do you make it embrace hundreds of millions of people, not just hundreds of thousands of people."

Those stories, decoding the chimpanzee's genetic code, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Here in the United States, the news this week has been dominated by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the massive storm which brought death and destruction to New Orleans and nearby areas along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

With much of New Orleans still under water, officials are concerned about the possible outbreak of disease and other public health factors affecting the well-being of those still in the flooded city and those who have taken refuge elsewhere, as well as others in the region affected by Hurricane Katrina.

To clarify some of the issues, I spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, which represents some 50,000 doctors and other members in various public health professions. Dr. Benjamin said there are numerous issues to watch.

BENJAMIN: "Certainly in the acute term and moderate term, we have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning from people using portable stoves. We have to be concerned about continued injuries, we have to be concerned about people eating spoiled food and water that's not safe to drink. And those are big public health challenges that often get overlooked. Certainly mental health — both acute depression and then in the long term, be very much concerned about the long term mental health aspects of what's going on. There's going to be concerns, particularly in crowded conditions, about passing of respiratory diseases to one another. And of course, as the fall comes in, we've got the flu season."

CHIMES: Is there a risk of infectious diseases like cholera?

BENJAMIN: "Yes. Certainly they've had cholera outbreaks there in the past, and they've had typhoid outbreaks there in the past. And remember, this is a very hot, muggy community with a lot of mosquitoes. So mosquito-born diseases like malaria are a potential. And so, there are things we know that we can do to help mitigate that, and those need to be done."

New Orleans is a very hot place to be at this time of year, and throughout the area there is no electric power for fans or air conditioners, so heat exposure and dehydration are serious problems. Another issue, says Dr. Benjamin, is that many people will be unable to take their usual medications.

BENJAMIN : "You know, you have people who are going to run out of their medications, and we we're going to have to have a capacity to get them their medications. We have people that've got medical conditions they've put off [dealing with], that now need to have those medical conditions taken care of. You know, the person who has a breast cancer and they have surgery scheduled, but now it can't be done. That's still going to have to happen. Or was getting chemotherapy. That's still going to have to happen."

CHIMES: I think there's only one hospital that's now operating in the city of New Orleans itself, but that's going to put obviously a lot of strain on the medical facilities in the surrounding areas as well.

BENJAMIN: "Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That's why everyone's going to have to pitch in and be part of the solution to this problem."

CHIMES: There are apparently a large number of dead bodies in the city. Does that present a public health problem?

BENJAMIN: "Not acutely. Obviously it's unsightly and the humanity of it is just heartbreaking, but I think the greatest threats remain [a lack of] clean water, safe food, and they will have to deal with the tragedy of the people that have died. But we do have people that have lived, and we have to make sure that they're safe."

The Gulf coast hit by the hurricane is home to numerous industrial facilities, including oil refineries and chemical plants. Dr. Benjamin says toxic leakage from those and other facilities could have serious public health effects.

BENJAMIN: "All of the leakages, all of those environmental toxins, potential toxins, are a problem. They're going to need to be tested for it. They're going to need to be tested for in water. They're going to need to be tested for in the soil. And that's, again, one of the reasons for removing folks and checking the environment to make sure it's safe before you move people back in."

Dr. Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association. Ironically, the group had scheduled its annual meeting for New Orleans later this year. Dr. Benjamin says the group is still discussing it, but it's looking less and less likely that they'll be able to meet in New Orleans as planned.

Technology may have failed New Orleans this week, as a man-made flood control system proved inadequate to keep the city dry and communications networks went down. But in the aftermath, a newer technology — the Internet — is playing a role.

When New Orleans' main newspaper, the Times-Picayune, couldn't get their presses running or deliver newspapers through their circulation area, the paper published an electronic version on its website. Same with radio and television stations.

Internet bulletin board added special categories related to the disaster. Site founder Craig Newmark said he's gratified by the way his site is being used.

NEWMARK: "It's very encouraging. A lot of people are offering a lot to many other people. A lot of people are offering rides. A lot of people have offered housing. And, perhaps more poignantly, a lot of people are using our site to contact friends and relatives who are now scattered throughout the American Southeast."

Craig Newmark says the online bulletin board,, is getting 10 times its normal traffic as it provides a way to communicate for people affected by Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in New Orleans.

And we'll mention just one more way the Internet is playing a role in this disaster. Americans are opening up their wallets and donating millions of dollars to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations at this time of need, and increasingly they are making those donations online.

An international team of scientists has completed a rough draft of the DNA of our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee. They didn't make any startling discoveries when they compared the chimp DNA with the human genetic blueprint, but VOA's Jessica Berman reports the work may eventually help answer the age-old scientific question: What makes us human?

BERMAN: Humans and chimps evolved separately since splitting from a common ancestor about six million years ago. The question has always been, what genetic differences led to our unique traits, such as the ability to walk upright and develop speech?

Hoping one day to answer that question, an international consortium of 67 researchers has completed a rough draft of the roughly three-billion building blocks of chimpanzee DNA and compared it to a road map of the human genetic sequence.

In a series of papers to be published in the journals Nature and Science, the investigators report that 96 percent of humans and chimp DNA is identical. But future research will focus on the remaining four percent of genes that are different, distinguishing us from our nearest primate relative, according to Robert Waterston, head of the Department Genome Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Dr. Waterston directed the Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium project.

WATERSTON: "What you are actually seeing are the individual events that have taken place in the course of evolution. If you see a difference between chimp and human it's almost certainly because of a single evolutionary event."

BERMAN: Professor Waterston says the human genetic roadmap and now the completed chimpanzee DNA blueprint offer investigators a catalogue of information.

WATERSTON: "This ability to draw evolutionary comparisons really adds great richness to what would otherwise be a one-dimensional story. And now, we can look at it through the lens of evolution and peak into evolution's lab notebook at see what really went on there."

BERMAN: In addition to providing answers to long-sought questions about evolution, researchers say they may some day be able to use the genetic differences between humans and chimps to understand how diseases arise and to develop new therapies. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Scientists at the University of Texas this week announced what could be a big step forward in the fight against diseases like Mad Cow and its human counterpart, known as CJD.

Most diseases are caused by viruses or bacteria. But a familiy of diseases, including Mad Cow, is caused by infectious particles called prions.

Prions are proteins that have no DNA. That's one reason they are hard to detect. And without the ability to detect them in the blood of an infected animal, it's been a challenge to diagnose the disease...

SOTO: "You know, even the best methods available today in my estimation have to be improved by 10,000 or 100,000 times — which is quite a lot."

Neurology Professor Claudio Soto and his colleagues set out to improve current methods of identifying prions in blood. After infection, it can take years before there are enough prions in the blood to be identified and cause disease.

SOTO: "We know that the incubation period in this disease can not be less than 20 years. So if we talk about 20 years, some people were exposed in the late 1980s or early '90s, then we are talking about disease that will be coming in 2010. So it's really possible that there will be thousands of cases or even hundreds of thousands of cases. And the most worrisome situation is that all these people who are silently incubating the disease, they're donating blood, they're going into surgery procedures that are known to be possible to further transfer the infectious material to other human beings."

So Dr. Soto and his team at the University of Texas Medical Branch found a way to speed up or amplify tiny, undetectable amounts of prions in blood samples, doing now in hours what can take decades in nature.

SOTO: "What we have done, it's basically to mimic what happens in the disease in order to use it for diagnosis."

A blood test for prion disease such as mad cow — known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE — and its human cousin, Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, could improve the safety of the human blood supply, and improve the safety of the food supply as well.

Dr. Soto's research, which appears in the journal "Nature Medicine," involved animals. The team plans to move ahead with studies of human blood, but even if all goes well it still could be several years before a test for prion diseases is available.

MUSIC: Lucky Peterson: "When My Blood Runs Cold"

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

Earlier this week you may have heard some reports in a special VOA series on the threats posed by communicable diseases.

As part of that series, VOA Moscow correspondent Lisa McAdams looked into the public health dangers posed by HIV/AIDS in the former Soviet states. She reports that Russia has the highest number of infections, and prospects are best in the central Asian republics, where there are still relatively few cases. In the Baltic states, there is concern about the rapid rate of transmission. And people infected with HIV are more vulnerable to tuberculosis, which is emerging in increasingly drug-resistant stains across the region.

McADAMS: Russia has the largest HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe, according to the World Health Organization, with an estimated 860,000 people infected, although officials say the number could be more than one-million.

Intravenous drug use, especially among young people, is the prime vehicle for the spread of the disease in Russia. An estimated 80 percent of officially reported cases were among injecting drug users, and a similar percentage are under the age of 30. The majority of cases are concentrated in a few urban areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The trend is much the same in neighboring Ukraine, where the number of newly reported cases has nearly doubled in each of the first three years of this century.

The five Republics of Central Asia are in what is described as beginning stages of the epidemic, but could face similar problems soon, without urgent intervention. And in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the overall number of infections is extremely low, but those numbers are increasing rapidly.

Robyn Montgomery of Russia's independent Aids Foundation East-West says, increasingly, the virus is spreading through sexual transmission to the general population.

MONTGOMERY: "What we are seeing is epidemiological trends pointing to [the] fact that bridging populations, such as sex workers, or partners of injecting drug users, or partners or clients of sex workers, are having an increasing role to play in terms of the transfer of AIDS in the region. Other factors — poverty [for example] — fuels [the] drug trade, and fuels sex work in most cases, and that is running rampant, especially Central Asia and up into Russia and Ukraine and over to the West."

McADAMS: But governments across the region have been slow to react. Ms. Montgomery says one of the first steps is for leaders to confront the magnitude of the problem, and then apply the resources to match. Aside from money, Ms. Montgomery says, grass-roots involvement is also needed.

MONTGOMERY: "Only people affected and infected can really shape the agenda, and really know where the interventions are needed, where assistance is needed."

McADAMS: But she says widespread discrimination and stigma have prevented such action. Thus, those who are in need of treatment with anti-retroviral drugs, do not get it, even though Russian law assures free and universal access to the drugs, known as ARV.

3nd MONTGOMERY: "Unfortunately, those who are in greatest need are not receiving the medicines they need, mainly because they are injecting drug users, and because the state believes injecting drug users are untreatable, or lead chaotic lifestyles that would only help spread resistance to ARV."

McADAMS: Experts say, if there is a bright spot in the region, it is Central Asia, where many agree HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs still have a chance to make a difference. Aids Foundation East-West launched an HIV/AIDS prevention project in March in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to train medical workers and others.

It is the first such pilot-project of its kind in the region, and Ms. Sutayeva, and AIDS Foundation East-West hope that, after three years, it will serve as a prevention model for governments across the region.

People with HIV are also more susceptible to contracting tuberculosis, which is evolving into increasingly drug-resistant forms. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in Ukraine, and the World Health Organization lists six of the former Soviet republics among 10 of the world's "hot spots" for drug-resistant strains of TB.

Doctor Wieslaw Jakubowiak heads the World Health Organization's TB program in the Russia. He says, while TB is still a cause for concern, there are signs progress is being made.

JAKUBOWIAK: "We have a continuous supply of anti-TB Drugs, which is the most important factor, because in the '90s, when we observed such a big increase in TB, we had no continuous supply of TB drugs."

McADAMS: He also commends the Russian government, which he says spends more than $50 million each year on TB control, although, he says multi-drug resistant strains of TB remain a problem.

The World Health Organization says international assistance is available to treat and control both TB and the HIV/AIDS in the region, but much more needs to be done by local governments to ensure effective treatment and prevention. Lisa McAdams, VOA News, Moscow.

The World Resources Institute, an environmental research group based in Washington, says better use of the world's ecosystems can help improve the lives of the billions of people living in extreme poverty.

In a new report, the group says economic growth is essential, and that growth has to be built on the sustainable use of natural resources.

World Resources Institute vice president Dr. David Jhirad says people who depend on farms, fisheries and forest must have the ability to control those resources. I asked him what's wrong with the current approach.

JHIRAD: "All of what we've been doing is good. We've been increasing aid budgets. We've been providing debt relief. We've been providing reform on trade. But we need to go further than that. As a nation and as a world, we've worked with other countries to invest in technology and agriculture, and it's all export-led growth. And the cities have benefitted. But what's been left out largely are the rural poor, with three-quarters of the poor.

One example cited in the World Resources report is Tanzania, in East Africa, where some 280,000 hectares of worn-out grazing land were given to local people.

JHIRAD: "And it was given by the Tanzanian government to the Sukuma people there, to have control over it. And the result — you just look at outcomes — they have higher household incomes, they have better diets, and there's a profusion of tree, bird and mammal species that's resulted. So that's an example where the local people were given title to that really denuded land, and the whole land has improved greatly."

The 2005 World Resources report says ecosystems can be the wealth of the poor, and David Jhirad stresses the need to overcome challenges, including resistance from governments that might be unenthusiastic about empowering the poor.

JHIRAD: "We are offering a hopeful message here, an optimistic message, and a message that we've shown in a number of cases works. But the challenge is, how do you scale it up, how do you make it embrace hundreds of millions of people, not just hundreds of thousands of people. So our view is, again, that since we have partners who have the financial clout and the resources to implement these things, that that is our hope, that this will lead to real change on the ground, which is what we all look for, real outcomes on the ground. It's not enough just to produce a nice-looking report, which it is."

And you can see for yourself -- the report is available for free at the World Resources institute website,, or we'll have a link at our website,

MUSIC: Wendy Carlos: Switched on Bach

For centuries, musical instruments have relied on technology to get that special sound. The unique tone of a Stradavarius violin depends on its construction, its wood, the unique chemical composition of its varnish. Les Paul opened up a new chapter in jazz and pop when he invented the solid-body electric guitar. And since the 1960s musicians have been using Moog synthesizers to create an entirely new experience for listeners.

Synthesizer inventor Robert Moog died earlier this month. He was 71 years old, and he had brain cancer.

Over the past four decades, musicians from the Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Wendy Carlos — here playing Switched on Bach — have used synthesizers, either alone or alongside more traditional instruments ... sometimes to imitate those traditional instruments, and sometimes to create an entirely new sonic experience. Thanks to Bob Moog, technology doesn't just make our lives more efficient or productive, it can also make our lives more beautiful.

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is —
Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

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 or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.