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Our World — 2 May 2009

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: The swine flu outbreak - how to avoid infection and the prospects for a vaccine ... safe nursing for HIV-positive mothers ... and farming by remote control ...

DIMA: "Imagine for example, that the grower or somebody hired to monitor the tractors sits in an office and monitors the activities of four autonomous tractors."

Farming from your easy chair, President Obama on the importance of investing in research, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Swine flu outbreak challenges scientists, doctors

The World Health Organization this week raised the alert on swine influenza A-H1N1.

The Phase Five alert means that the virus is spreading from person to person. In WHO's terminology, it is a "strong signal that a pandemic is imminent."

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the number of people confirmed with swine flu is still only in the hundreds, many with relatively minor symptoms.

To put this in perspective, the WHO says that each year, seasonal flu viruses will kill between a quarter million and a half million people.

Still, the concern about swine flu is the uncertainty of a new virus that is turning up everywhere from the South Pacific to North America to Europe.

Because it is already widespread, WHO Assistant Director-General Dr. Keiji Fukuda said that there is little point in imposing travel bans -

FUKUDA: "Predominantly because this virus has already spread quite far and at this time, containment is not a feasible operation."

U.S. officials say there is no reason to avoid travel by plane or mass transportation, though some experts have suggested avoiding non-essential travel to affected areas. Several hundred American schools were closed at the end of the week to try to limit the spread of infection.

I spoke this week with Joan Nichols, an influenza researcher at the University of Texas and the Galveston National Laboratory. She explained that much of the uncertainty about this virus derives from its genetic makeup, which includes a combination of genes.

NICHOLS: "They're from human, avian, and swine viruses, which makes it very special."

Q: Does that make it more dangerous?

NICHOLS: "It can because it's new, and because it's new and we haven't seen it before, our population has no immunity to it. So that's why it's something we want to watch in terms of potential for pandemic."

Q How does a new strain of influenza virus happen?

NICHOLS: "New strains emerge periodically and circulate in our population. That's what's special about influenza. What's also special in terms of it being a swine virus is that influenza viruses can be transmitted from pigs to people and require direct contact usually. And pigs can serve as a mixing pot, produce new viruses like this one that have pieces of different viruses and mixtures of genes from different viruses. That's what makes it new."

Q: So does the fact that it is coming from this reservoir that includes some elements of pig, does that make pork dangerous to eat. Can you get the swine flu from eating pork?

NICHOLS: "No, you can't get swine flu from eating pork, and generally cooking pork kills virus and bacteria that are found in it. In this case, this virus is being transmitted from people to people, so there's no longer that pig-to-human component to it. And that's what we're interested in. In terms of the WHO criteria, a virus to be a pandemic virus, it has to be new, it has to transmit well from people to people, and the global population has to have no immunity to it."

Q Is there a particular danger if you live or work around pigs?

NICHOLS: "Generally, we see a few outbreaks every year of swine flu that are transmitted across to people that do require direct contact with pigs. Between 2005 and 2009, I think maybe there were like a dozen cases. So it does happen occasionally. The greater concern is that it is transmitted from people to people at this stage."

Q: Is there any particular reason why this strain might have emerged in Mexico, or does it just have to be somewhere?

NICHOLS: "It has to be somewhere. In this case, if it's a swine virus it came out of a population where you had a lot of rural communities, pig farms, pig farms in close proximity to either wild birds or domestic bird populations to get the avian mix into it. Anywhere you have animals and agricultural settings you have people in close proximity working with them, slaughterhouse situations. So in terms of the agricultural side, that's the side that would allow for transmission. Like I said, there are generally a few cases every year of virus being transferred from pigs to humans or even birds to humans with avian flu. But the transmission is the part that's usually lacking, and in this case we're seeing transmission from person to person."

Q: Is there any reason why a vaccine could not be developed for this strain, and if it can be developed, what would the timeline be?

NICHOLS. "Oh, no. Definitely. As far as I know they've made a seed stock. There's some information from the CDC that a seed stock was generated."

Q: What's a seed stock?

NICHOLS: "A seed stock is what you need to grow up a small amount of the virus and that will be used to produce your vaccine stock. Having a seed stock already makes it so that it's not as long a period of time. But remember, this virus is grown in eggs predominantly for production of vaccine, although not everywhere in the world, and production of eggs takes time, because they're not just from your regular chickens; they're from specialized flocks that are germ-free, disease-free. And so from that you have to inject the eggs with a virus, grow it in the egg, and then isolate it, isolate the materials you use to put into the vaccine itself to produce it. And so that's why it takes you months in order to produce a new vaccine. It's that process in between."

Dr. Joan Nichols of the University of Texas.

One of the simplest ways of reducing your chances of getting swine flu - or any flu, really - is to wash your hands with soap and warm water, and to avoid spreading any germs you might have, cover your nose and mouth when you cough.

Researchers race to develop swine flu vaccine

As public health officials around the world try to contain the spread of the swine flu, scientists are working overtime to develop a vaccine against this new strain of the virus. VOA's Jessica Berman has an update.

BERMAN: According to molecular biologist Andrew Pekosz of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, little is known about the H1N1 swine flu virus that has emerged in several countries.

Pekosz says no one has immunity against the virus, which is made up of bits of genetic material from pigs, humans, and birds.

PEKOSZ: "It's a new virus whose biological properties we're still not sure of. And with influenza, it's been documented that different strains have a differential ability to cause disease in animals and in humans. And right now, we're getting very mixed signals about this virus' ability to cause disease."

BERMAN: But the good news is that molecular analysis of the swine virus shows it is the same pathogen all over the world, according to Kathy Neuzil of PATH, an international non-profit organization that promotes vaccine development.

NEUZEL: "So we're not seeing a changing virus. We're seeing the same virus being isolated in Mexico and various places in the United States."

BERMAN: Neuzil, who heads PATH's Influenza Vaccine Project, says that because the swine flu virus does not appear to be mutating, it should be easier to develop a vaccine.

Experts say the challenge now will be trying to decide how to distribute a swine flu vaccine.

Since the seasonal flu virus vaccine that is in production for the coming flu season is not effective against H1N1, Andrew Pekosz of the Johns Hopkins University says public health officials will need to decide whether to incorporate it into the existing vaccine or make a standalone inoculation.

PEKOSZ: "So if we're going to make an influenza virus vaccine that's based on H1N1 swine that will be used during the next flu season, we have to make a decision as to how much effort is going to be put toward that relatively soon. Otherwise, we will just simply run out of time to generate enough of the vaccine to really help us."

BERMAN: The World Health Organization and the CDC are working with drug companies to manufacture a vaccine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Safe breastfeeding for HIV-positive mothers

On to another health story now.

One of the most difficult dilemmas faced by women with HIV - the virus that causes AIDS - is the decision whether or not to breastfeed their babies. Even if children are born without the virus, they can acquire it from their infected mother during breastfeeding.

For years, experts have stressed the nutritional value of breast milk. But in resource-poor countries, feeding a child with formula can also create a health threat. So what's an HIV-positive mother to do? More on that from health reporter Rose Hoban.

HOBAN: In the beginning of the AIDS crisis, HIV positive women in poor countries were told not to breast feed. So those women's babies didn't receive the many benefits that breast feeding provides. In addition, many of them died of diarrheal diseases.

Researcher Sera Young from the University of California at Davis has been working with about a hundred women in Tanzania, teaching them to pasteurize their milk at home, using a technique called flash heating.

YOUNG: "What the mother does is she expresses the milk into a glass jar, it could be an old peanut butter jar, it could be a jam jar. And then she puts that glass jar into a pan of water and put that jar in that pan onto a fire, it could be any kind of fire and as soon as the water boils, the milk has reached a high enough temperature about 70°C, to kill all of the HIV but maintain most of the integrity of the nutrients and the immunological properties. It's a double boiling technique."

HOBAN: Young says she wanted to know if the women would be willing and able to do everything needed to treat the milk.

YOUNG: "Could they follow a protocol which includes washing your hands before you express the milk, expressing regularly throughout the day and then heating it with … utensils that been properly cleaned and what we found is that, heck yes, women can do this."

HOBAN: The protocol did prove to be a problem for some women - in particular those who wanted to keep their HIV status secret.

YOUNG: Onlookers are extremely curious about why they are heating their breast milk.

Young says the World Health Organization actually recommends that HIV positive women self-pasteurize their milk. But, ironically, no one knew whether it was feasible or acceptable to do so.

She says her research shows that women can and will do what they need to do to protect their babies.

The next question is what effect does this technique have on babies.

YOUNG: "Right now we are in the planning stages of a large clinical study that will look at hundreds and hundreds of women and then we will have the statistical power to look at the differences between those children who received flash heated milk and those who haven't."

HOBAN: Young says these women - and their children - desperately need to know the answer to this question. I'm Rose Hoban

Public health agency is Website of the Week

Time again for our Website of the Week, where we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

There's so much concern about swine flu that we want to revisit one of our previous Website of the Week selections. It's a site where you can get the latest information on the outbreak.

America's premiere public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, is monitoring the swine flu outbreak, and the CDC's Janice Nall says collecting and disseminating information about that and other diseases is a key part of the mission of

NALL: "There's a huge amount of original reporting of science data that results from studies: statistics, data, translating that data into practice for physicians and healthcare practitioners."

At times when a health threat looms, reliable information is important. And has health information you can trust, written both for experts and in language that non-specialists can understand.

NALL: "It is a high priority to make sure that our materials do become translated for audiences that are not in the profession themselves. But we're just in the infancy in doing that and will continue to do so."

Much of the information on the site is available in Spanish as well as English, and the site includes videos, podcasts, widgets and gadgets, and other ways of getting you the information you need.

NALL: "We are very much trying to go in the direction of providing content in multiple formats, so be it mobile, be it video, audio - how people want it, so they can get the information how, when and where they want to receive it."

While you're on the site, be sure to check out one of my favorite features, the Public Health Image Library, and a virtual encyclopedia ranging from AIDS to zoster.

Swine flu updates and much, much more from the Centers for Disease Control at , or get the link from our site,

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You've made a healthy choice to listen to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Obama sets goal of Apollo-level science spending

President Obama this week set a goal of devoting three percent of the U.S. gross domestic product to scientific research and development.

Speaking to members of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, the president recalled the push to send astronauts to the moon in the 1960s, and said R&D investments as a share of national income have been declining ever since. Mr. Obama pledged what he called the "largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."

OBAMA: "Just think what this will allow us to accomplish: solar cells as cheap as paint, and green buildings that produce all of the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again; an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us. We can do this.

"The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another fifty years. That is how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation's work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

"This work begins with an historic commitment to basic science and applied research, from the labs of renowned universities to the proving grounds of innovative companies."

At of time of economic crisis, President Obama repeatedly characterized spending on research as an investment, saying science is more essential than ever for prosperity, security, environment and health.

Robots spread seeds of change in fruit orchards

Perhaps some of that R&D money will end up on the farm. Mechanization has made the modern farmer's life a lot easier. That's especially true for those who grow crops like wheat, soy, or corn on big, broad fields. But the story is quite different for growers who raise crops that require intensive hand labor to plant and harvest. Growers of so-called specialty crops like fruits and nuts have long hoped for labor-saving - and money-saving - mechanization to come to their farms. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, they might soon find an answer in a new robotic technology.

SKIRBLE: Craig Senovich grew up in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. His great grandfather owned the land and planted vegetables, but Senovich, an engineer by day, just opened Half Crown Hill Orchard four years ago.

SENOVICH: "There was really just a lot of crab apple trees and brush, and it took us several months just of digging out trees and clearing the land and preparing the soil."

SKIRBLE: Senovich fenced in a 1.2 hectare plot, planted 1,300 trees, and installed a drip irrigation system. Field sensors and a weather station are linked to his personal computer and track important data related to the crop's well-being.

SENOVICH: "And I also have a leaf wetness monitor that depending on how wet, and how long and what temperatures different funguses will grow and then [I] determine when and what to spray, rather than just spraying all the time."

SKIRBLE: Half Crown Hill Orchard is also a robotic technology test site for a United States Department of Agriculture project looking at ways of mechanizing the production of specialty crops like apples.

SENOVICH: "It would be nice to be able to have some automated stuff even just to mow the lawn. It takes me many hours just to come down here and mow."

SINGH: "Mowing is easy. We could attach a mowing attachment to the back of this vehicle and as it goes along, it could make sure that the vegetation doesn't grow too high here in the middle of the rows."

SKIRBLE: That's Sanjiv Singh, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor, who is charged with developing systems for the apple industry. Today he's working with a battery powered electric utility vehicle that drives itself. Two laser scanners mounted on the front bumper, each taking 13,000 measurements per second, help plot its course.

SKIRBLE: Singh says added sensors and cameras could eventually give growers continuous updates on crop status and early warning of disease and insect infestation.

SINGH: "This is simple technology coupled with sensors that are available today that might be able to give a farmer a lot more information that they are able to [use]. This is a small orchard, but you can imagine orchards that are hundreds of acres where it is impossible to go up and down the rows very frequently."

SKIRBLE: Another USDA applied robotics project takes Cris Dima to Florida. The southeastern U.S. state is second only to Brazil in citrus production worldwide. Dima is a scientist at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon, and he has just spent several weeks in one of the state's largest orange groves testing a network of autonomous, or driverless, tractors.

DIMA: "So imagine for example, that the grower or somebody hired to monitor the tractors sits in an office somewhere or in a pickup truck somewhere in the grove and monitors the activities of four autonomous tractors, or more, performing operations such as spraying or mowing or things like that."

SKIRBLE: Robots could also be engineered to administer precise amounts of water or chemicals to specific trees. Dima says the goal is not to develop an entirely autonomous operation, but rather to integrate technology the farmer needs at an affordable price.

DIMA: "Beyond proving that this is possible, there is work to be done in reducing the cost of the technology, making it robust and transferring it to somebody who can commercialize it."

SKIRBLE: Back at Half Crown Hill Orchard, Sanjiv Singh says it's going to take growers like Craig Senovich, engaged in the process, to move this technology into the marketplace.

SINGH: "We've been working on this robotics technology, automation technology, for like 25 years and from a technology perspective, some of the things, are fairly well in hand. It is going to be, how do we create the value? The things that are well in hand, do they generate enough dollars for people."

SKIRBLE: Farmer Craig Senovich nods in agreement as he watches the electric vehicle drive itself safely down rows of budding trees in his orchard. He's hoping these test runs will soon advance to the next step, and start providing fruit and vegetable growers with some automated and money-saving solutions. I'm Rosanne Skirble, VOA News, in Western Pennsylvania.

GE develops new high-capacity computer disks

With all that agricultural automation, you might wonder what the farmer is doing with his free time. Maybe he's back home, watching a movie on his DVD player.

Two hours of great-looking video on a disk represents a lot of data per square centimeter. But this week, engineers at General Electric said they've developed a new holographic storage system that can pack 500 gigabytes onto a single disk. That's 100 times the capacity of today's DVD.

GE says the disks might be on the market in two or three years.

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That's our show for this week.

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Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak is our editor. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

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 technology ... in Our World.