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Our World Transcript — October 8, 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" ... A postmortum on the virus responsible for the deadly 1918 flu pandemic ... The winners of this years Nobel Prizes in science... and what the extinction of an ancient species can teach us ...

JOHNSON: "What we're dealing with in the past, is the destruction of habitats...the impact that has on biodiversity. Those are major issues today."

Those stories, book recommendations on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The 1918 influenza pandamic is one of the worst health emergencies in recorded history, killing tens of millions of people. Now, scientists have decoded the genetic structure of that flu virus. This is more than a footnote to history, though. Amid fears today of an outbreak of bird, or avian flu into the human population, it turns out that the 1918 pandemic was caused by a avian flu virus that jumped to humans. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: It was the 20th century's greatest plague. Estimates of the 1918-1919 flu death toll range from 20 million to 50 million, more than died in the war that had just preceded it.

The head of the U.S. government's disease tracking agency, Julie Gerberding of the Centers for Disease Control, says hardest hit were the young and productive between 20 and 40 years old.

GERBERDING: "The 1918 influenza virus that caused such global global disease spread very rapidly, particularly among healthy people, was very, very virulent, and certainly circled the globe in record time."

McALARY: U.S. government and private scientists have finished a 10-year project to determine the virus' genetic makeup. They recreated a live virus in a high-security laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control by combining fragments from the organism's eight genes.

Researcher Jeffrey Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Pathology Institute says the genetic scraps were gathered from well preserved lung tissue samples taken from victims during autopsies 87-years ago or, in one case, from a victim exhumed from Alaskan permafrost.

TAUBENBERGER: "Because influenza viruses were not known to exist in 1918, there were no isolates made of this strain of the virus, and so there was actually no way for medical scientists to directly study this influenza virus."

McALARY: The scientists tested the virus by inserting it into mice, chicken embryos, and human lung cells. They found that by substituting genes from other flu viruses, they could make it less lethal.

The research, published in the weekly journals "Science" and "Nature," shows that the 1918 flu virus is more closely related to bird flus than human flus. It has several of the same genetic mutations found in the bird flu strain now spreading in Asia, mutations believed to help the virus replicate more efficiently.

Mr. Taubenberger says this reveals that bird flu viruses can cause serious human infection without first combining with a strain already adapted to people. Some experts have said that effective human transmission might require combination with a human flu.

TAUBENBERGER: "We now think that the 1918 virus was an entirely avian-like virus that adapted to humans. This is a different situation than the last two pandemics we had, the Asian flu in 1957 and the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which are mixtures in which a human-adapted influenza virus acquired two or three new genes from an avian influenza source. So it suggests that pandemics can form in more than one way, and this is a very important point."

McALARY: He says it also suggests that the current Asian bird flu, known by its scientific designation H5N1, could evolve into a human killer with just a few more mutations that allow it to jump more efficiently among people.

TAUBENBERGER: "It suggests to us they might be going down a similar path the ultimately led to 1918."

McALARY: Mr. Taubenberger says if researchers can identify virus components that are important in the process of adapting to humans, they could make a list of molecules to look for in emerging bird flus that threaten people.

Dr. Gerberding of the Centers for Disease Control says it is comforting to know that the 1918 virus, now that it has been reconstructed, is susceptible to a new vaccine U.S. researchers have developed against bird flu. This means it should work against the bird flu, too, if production can be expanded should a pandemic occur. David Mcalary, VOA News, Washington.

The Royal Swedish Academy this week announced winners of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences.

The first announcement came Monday, when Australian medical researchers Robin Warren and Barry Marshall were cited for their discovery that bacteria cause ulcers.

For years, ulcers were believed to be caused by stress. There was so much skepticism, in fact, that Dr. Marshall demonstrated their theory by experimenting on himself.

MARSHALL: "In 1984, I drank the bacteria to show they could in fact infect a healthy person and cause ulcers, so to be honest we knew it was an important discovery right from the start, but it of course took quite a few years to convince everybody else of that."

Ulcers are now treated successfully with antibiotics, thanks to the pioneering work of Barry Marshall and his colleague, Robin Warren.

On Tuesday came the physics prize, which this year honors three scientists for work involving lasers.

Roy Glauber was selected for his theoretical work on how light particles behave. John Hall and Theodor Hänsch were named for the later development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, a technology that has made possible extremely accurate clocks and improvements in the global positioning system. The work also enabled lasers to be used to measure the speed of light more precisely than previously possible.

All three are Americans, though Dr. Hansch was born in Germany.

And finally, on Wednesday, came the announcement of the Chemistry prize. Yves Chauvin of France, and Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock of the U.S. were cited for a technique that allows the production of a much broader range of organic molecules — those based on carbon — and to do so more efficiently. Methathesis, as the process is called, is used is used to develop new medicines, fuel products and plastics. The Nobel committee said that the process "represents a great step forward in 'green chemistry.'"

Each of the three Nobel Prizes this year is worth about $1.3 million, and the amount will be split by the recipients in each category.

Chronic diseases are the world's leading cause of death. In a new report, the World Health Organization proposes a plan of global action to prevent chronic disease which, it says, could save the lives of 36 million people who would otherwise be dead by 2015. Lisa Schlein reports from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization says millions of people are dying prematurely and suffering needlessly from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. It says these diseases are preventable and the global epidemic of chronic disease can be stopped. It says the vast majority of cases are caused by three preventable risk factors - unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use.

The Director of WHO's Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, Robert Beaglehole, says myths surrounding chronic diseases hamper action to stop them. For example, he says one myth claims chronic diseases affect only wealthy men in wealthy countries. But he says evidence shows 80-percent of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries and half of them among women.

BEAGLEHOLE: "At least 50 percent of adults over the age of 30 in some sub-Saharan African countries are already overweight. Blood pressure levels in sub-Saharan Africa are among the highest levels in the world. And, cholesterol levels which is also an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease are common everywhere except in the very, very poorest famine-hit countries. We are not talking about the Nigers of this world or the Malawis of this world."

SCHLEIN: The World Health Organization hopes countries around the world will take notice and do something about chronic diseases once they realize what they cost.

This report estimates during the next 10 years China will suffer accumulated losses of $558 billion as a result of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Russia will suffer losses of more than $300 billion and India $236 billion.

Dr. Beaglehole calls this staggering. He says countries will save billions of dollars if they promote programs to save millions of lives.

BEAGLEHOLE: "And that is why we propose a goal for preventing ... 36-million deaths from chronic diseases between now and the year 2015 and that is achievable if we reduce chronic disease death rates by two percent a year … a rate of decline which has been far exceeded, far exceeded most notably and most recently in Poland."

SCHLEIN: Dr. Beaglehole says in Poland, the death rates in young adults declined by 10-percent a year in the 1990s and in older people by six percent a year. He says the government achieved this at very low cost by making fruit and vegetables available and by removing subsidies on dairy products, particularly butter. As these products became more expensive, he says the government lowered prices on healthier oils.

The WHO report cites other inexpensive and cost-effective measures that can lead to better health. These include reducing salt in processed foods, improving school meals, and taxing tobacco products. Lisa Schlein for VOA News, Geneva.

MUSIC: "Kickin' up Dust" by Robert Walter

A new report from the World Bank says one out of every five cases of serious disease in developing countries stems from environmental degradation.

As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, poor people in developing countries are the first to suffer when the water is unsafe or the air is polluted.

SKIRBLE: The environment is killing us.

Consider this: 1.7 million premature deaths each year are attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene. And urban air pollution – especially in rapidly growing cities in the developing world - is estimated as the cause of another 800,000 premature deaths.

The new report focuses on problems and solutions from a local, regional and global perspective and the direct link between environment and health.

It describes low cost and low-tech steps that local communities can take to reverse the trend. For example, in Ghana a simple hand-washing program helps to reduce the spread of disease.

Indoor air pollution from burning coal and wood is also cause for concern. As a health risk, it ranks just below malnutrition and lack of sanitation and drinking water in South Asia. In Nepal family-size biogas reactors turn waste into fuel for heating and cooking and … and they pollute much less.

World Bank Environment Department director Warren Evans says 100,000 of the biogas units are already in place, with a target of 100,000 more by 2009.

EVANS: “By introducing fairly simple technologies we are addressing energy issues. We are addressing water pollution issues. We are addressing public health issues related to livestock, farming and clearly reducing the exposure of local communities to pathogens, and at the same time hopefully we are reducing the pressure on local community forests for energy sources.”

SKIRBLE: The urban outdoor environment is also under assault. The Clean Air Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa has helped reduce air pollution from cars and trucks in rapidly growing cities.

EVANS: “This is a partnership with a number of other organizations that combines research, training and actions on the ground and has shown absolutely phenomenal results. A good example is the elimination of lead in gasoline in much of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

SKIRBLE: Globally the health of some 1.1 billion people is endangered because they lack access to safe water. One of the United Nations Millennium Development goals is to reduce that number by half by 2015. The World Bank calls for greater support from global partners to accomplish this mission.

The World Bank upped its environmental lending by more than six percent this year, compared with 2004. The increase -- to 11 percent of total lending -- reflects large loans for sustainable development, water sanitation, irrigation, wastewater and solid waste management projects, says Warren Evans.

EVANS: “I think that what happened last year is a good sign. It shows that we can incorporate key environmental initiatives in infrastructure development. So we need to build on those lessons and hopefully this time next year we can report even more progress on that.”

SKIRBLE: World Bank official Warren Evans says from a development perspective our lives and economic wellbeing are dependent on the environment and its protection is critically linked to our future health. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Reading has always been a hobby of mine. I read a lot of science books and articles for my job. But I also like to read fiction, and choosing what to read next can be a challenge. Sometimes a book will land on my list when a friend recommends it, or when I read a positive review. But there's a new online resource that could help. It's our Website of the Week,

Steve Johnston, the former bookseller who now heads StoryCode, says the idea is to recommend books that are similar to books you've read and like —

JOHNSTON: "StoryCode is trying very hard to match stories to each other in a way that when they've discovered one story and enjoyed it, they can find stories that are very similar to it."

It works this way: Users rate, or code each book on about 40 different characteristics, for example, is it more plot-driven or character-drive, or how much of a moral message does the story deliver. And these are not either/or categories. For example, there's a genre of romance novels, but all sorts of books have some element of romance.

JOHNSTON: "We're asking you to scale how much of a romance, on a slider. So effectively it acquires a score from zero, say, to 20. But we also ask you how much of a thriller it is. Or how much of an adventure story it is. So it's not one thing or the other. It will have a sensitivity across these various genres."

Steve Johnson says the goal is to have many readers coding each book.

JOHNSTON: "We want multiple codes and then, when you have multiple codes, we average the scores out, so we arrive at, if you like, a consensus for each story."

Among some 2000 registered users, the most commonly coded book right now — Dan Brown's blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, which has been coded by more than 100 people — should be quite reliable. And if you liked The Da Vinci Code, StoryCode thinks you'll like Angels and Demons, also by Dan Brown, and The Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry.

StoryCode launched earllier this year, and is still going through its beta shakedown. It currently has British and American versions, to account for publications differences in the two countries. And it's another example of something completely new and hard to imagine could have existed in the days BI — before the Internet — bringing together total strangers from all over in pursuit of a common goal — in this case, a good read.

Check it out at, or get the link from our site,

Scientists from around the world converged on Hot Springs, South Dakota, last month for the second International World of Elephants Congress. The four-day conference gave those engaged in research on elephants, mammoths, mastodons and related fauna of the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs the opportunity to gather and share the results of their research. Jim Kent visited the meeting and spoke to some of the scientists about the relevance of their prehistoric research in today's world.

VIDEO: Here on the northern plains of North America, the mammoth was a contemporary of the bison and was hunted by early man. Most of the world's mammoths died out between 10- and 12,000 years ago. ...

KENT: More than 50 mammoths slid into a submerged South Dakota pond 26,000 years ago to drink some water. Unable to climb out of the steep sinkhole depression, they died there. The area eventually filled with sediment that protected the animals' remains until 1974, when a construction crew uncovered their preserved bones. Today, the Mammoth Site, as it's now known, attracts tourists, school groups and scientists, including those who came here for the "World of Elephants" Congress. Paleontologist Eileen Johnson is from Texas Tech University.

JOHNSON: "Everybody who is here is interested in Proboscideans, whether they're modern elephants or all of the various types of ancient ones. But it does allow people from around the world to come together that have different perspectives and different interests and to talk about them."

KENT: Proboscideans include elephants as well as mammoths, their ancient ancestors who first appeared about 4 million years ago in Africa, and spread to Europe and Asia. They migrated across the Bering Strait to North America about 1.8 million years ago.

Eileen Johnson notes that a good portion of the four-day conference centered on what happened to all those ancient elephants.

JOHNSON: "And we're all going in a fairly uniform direction, but within that we've got lots of different directions that cross over and some of them sort of go head-to-head for the moment."

KENT: According to Ms. Johnson, expert theories about the extinction of the mammals tend to group around two possible causes: climate … and our ancestors.

JOHNSON: "There are people at the conference, myself included, that are more in the climate/biological realm. There are some people who think it is solely people. And then there are others who are kind of in-between. And I might be convinced to be almost in-between. I think people may have killed off the last few or had a role in the very end, but I don't think they were the cause. So, some of the papers here have actually addressed that issue in a variety of ways. Right now, there's so much data coming out, it's really hard to absorb it all, to even know about all of it."

TIKHONOV: "All organisms, even bacteria, micro-organisms, insects, all of them...they're connected with these giants..."

KENT: Russian scientist Alexei Tikhonov feels it's vital to understand why these massive creatures are no longer here, regardless of how they went extinct.

TIKHONOV: "…because these giants, they can change the landscapes. They can change the environment. If you look, an example, on the African savannah, and see how the African elephants keep this savannah in these conditions.… Of course, if we destroyed all elephants, for example, in Africa, we'd lose these landscapes, because nobody can keep the savannah in the same condition. And, of course, in the forests there are dozens and dozens of mammal species, hundreds of billed species and thousands of insects for example. They [would] disappeared, because there [would be] no habitats for them, in this case."

KENT: "So, reduction of elephants can impact the whole world?"

TIKHONOV: "Yes, you're absolutely right."

KENT: Eileen Johnson agrees that it's important to investigate the past to protect the world for the future.

JOHNSON: "What we're dealing with in the past, particularly when you look at the question of extinction, is the destruction of habitats, the impact that has on biodiversity. Those are major issues today. And there's a lot that can be learned between the present and the past."

KENT: Scientists who study how mammoths died out hope their research may shed some light on the complex relationship among the environment, humans, and other animals today. Jim Kent, in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Ask us a science question … 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
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Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. 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.