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MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World," battling avian flu in Turkey, the long journey to Pluto, and a birthday tribute to an inventive early American.
TALBOT:  So he talks about how he took the pieces from one pair of glasses and put it to another and  sort of put them in the frame and 'Ta Da!' he came up with bifocals!

Benjamin Franklin, deep science searches on our Website of the Week, and more .... I'm Art Chimes.  Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


Donor countries meeting in Beijing this week pledged almost $2 billion to help combat avian flu. The United States was the biggest donor, with Japan and Europe also making large pledges.

Avian, or bird flu is common among birds, and it comes in different varieties. The strain you've been hearing so much about in recent months is called H5N1, and it has been particularly deadly among the humans who have become infected.

Although H5N1 apparently emerged in East Asia two years ago, this month Turkey confirmed its first human cases of the disease. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan announced in Ankara Wednesday that one million poultry birds had been killed in an effort to control the disease. Turkey is on international bird migration routes.

An official of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization,  Juan Lubroth, who recently returned from Turkey, told reporters in Rome that it is critical to increase monitoring of bird infections, as well as of humans, as avian flu continues to spread.

LUBROTH:  "All countries should review their contingency plans, strengthen their surveillance, and this includes surveillance in wildlife. And so therefore, an outbreak in Urfa, in the southern part of Turkey, which is very close to the Syrian border, I would say [means that] Syria is at risk. Bulgaria, sharing a common border, and a common Danube [River] delta, is also at risk. So as far as disease spread, I would say, yes it is possible."

Juan Lubroth of the FAO.

Even with the new surge of human cases in Turkey, the World Health Organization says there is no evidence that the disease has been spread from human to human. In other words, it appears that everybody who's gotten this avian flu got it from an infected bird. But scientists warn that if ? if ? the flu virus mutates, it could spread from person-to-person, with possibly disastrous results.

It's been a big science week at the U.S. space agency NASA. On Tuesday, the first robot mission to the most distant planet, Pluto, blasted off from Cape Canaveral ?

NASA LAUNCH CONTROL:  "... three, two, one. We have ignition and liftoff of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on a decade-long voyage to visit the planet Pluto and then beyond."

Pluto is a long, long way from earth, and it will take the New Horizons spacecraft about 10 years to get there. In any event, Pluto is so small and far away that here on Earth we really don't know that much about it, and this will be the first time a robot spacecraft gets to visit ... in a brief flyby in July 2015, when Pluto and its moon, Charon, get their closeup.

Meanwhile, an excited group of NASA officials and scientists announced the successful recovery of the Stardust capsule at a press conference near the landing site in Utah. Here are their voices, starting with the head of the space agency's Solar System division, Andrew Dantzler.

DANTZLER: "The Stardust capsule is back on Earth. It's back home. It's in our hands. The entry, descent and landing went flawlessly, and everything went exactly as planned."

DUXBURY: "We pushed about every frontier you could think of ? going halfway to Jupiter on solar cells, coming back into Earth faster than anything has ever done before, so many many things that we did in this little project."

BROWNLEE: "You know, we did this mission to collect the most primitive materials we could in the Solar System. We went to a comet that formed at the edge of the Solar System. It's the same class of body as the planet Pluto except it was smaller. And we're confident that it was made out of the initial building blocks of our Solar System. We have always stressed in this mission that we are stardust because our planet and even ourselves have a direct relation to the particles that we brought back this morning."

Chief scientist Don Brownlee, and before him, project manager Andy Duxbury.

Their enthusiasm continued after getting the return capsule into the laboratory and opening it up, and seeing that the cargo came back in perfect condition. As many as 150 scientists will have the opportunity to study the cosmic dust that they hope will provide clues about the origin of our Solar System.

In addition, if you have Internet access, you can actually help look for interstellar particles captured in the Stardust mission. Volunteers will be scanning microscopic images in a project called Stardust-at-Home. For details, surf on over to, or get the link on our site,

On Wednesday, the U.S. agency that regulates medicines, the Food and Drug Administration, announced changes in the way prescription drugs are labeled. Changes to the package inserts, for the benefit of medical professionals more than consumers, are aimed in part at reducing the risk of medical errors.

Even in advanced medical centers in the United States, doctors make mistakes. In percentage terms, mistakes may be rare. But a 1999 report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine estimated that almost 100,000 patients die each year in American hospitals due to medical errors. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine called for improved reporting of errors, so patterns could be identified and corrected.

Medical professionals have tended to look at other medical practitioners for best practices.

In the past few years, though, they've discovered an unlikely model.

HEALY:  "And it became obvious to us as we looked at this that the one industry that had many parallels to us, believe it or not, was the airline industry."

Dr. Gerald Healy is a top official of the American College of Surgeons, a professional group. Both airplane cockpits and hospital operating rooms involve a team of highly-trained specialists led by a surgeon or captain. There has traditionally been a lot of deference to that leader. But analysis of avaition accidents has suggested that the old top-down approach can be dangerous.

HEALY:  "The airline industry has been interested in this concept of developing a team in the aircraft setting that empowers all members of the team to be important inputters [contributors] if you will to the process of safe air flight."

Airline pilot Jack Barker, a former Air Force Academy professor whose company,  Mach One Leadership, is introducing aviation safety principles to doctors, says all members of the medical team should be involved.

BARKER:  "[In] the places that we've actually done this training already, probably where you've gotten the biggest impact have been the non-surgeons. Actually in one of the places we worked, we found that the receptionists, the people that first meet the patients, had learned a lot from this 'cause now they felt more comfortable bringing information forward to the surgeons, which can prevent the error, because the errors can start from the moment a patient walks in."

Barker says many doctors doubt they have anything to learn from the aviation industry.

BARKER:  "We went into a lot of environments where a lot of surgeons were at first skeptical. 'We don't need this. We really don't understand what this is going to do for us.' But to really my surprise and a compliment to all the surgeons that I've worked with,

they've turned around. Some of our biggest critics are now the biggest advocates of this because they realize that in the long run it's going to help the patient and it'll make them better as a surgeon."

There has long been an elaborate system in place to report and study aviation accidents. If a design defect is identified as the cause, a fix will be required. If human error is to blame, then new training procedures will be adopted. It's different in medicine. The old joke is that doctors bury their mistakes. But a new patient safety law enacted in 2005 sets up a system for voluntary, confidential reporting of health care errors in the United States. Dr. Dean Griffen, a surgeon in Shreveport, Louisiana, says hard data is the first step toward reducing errors.

GRIFFEN:  "And the purpose of this is to collect data that will tell us where the problems in the delivery of surgical care lie, so that we can, in fact, address them with best practices and protective environments so that we can do a better job as well."

Effort to reduce medical errors could bring down the cost of care, doctors say. Especially in high-risk specialties, malpractice insurance premiums continue to climb. Better procedures that reduce mistakes could help control those insurance costs.

Doctors often recommend a low-dose aspirin every day to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. It's effective for both men and women ? but, as we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, in different ways.

SKIRBLE:  A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says a regimen of one aspirin per day affects men and women very differently. 

BROWN:  "In women aspirin prevents strokes and doesn't have any real effect on heart attack, and in men aspirin prevents heart attacks but has no effect on the prevention of strokes. 

So there appears to be a gender-based difference in the beneficial effect of aspirin.

SKIRBLE:  That's Dr. David Brown, professor at Stony Brook University Hospital Medical Center in New York and lead author of the study, which analyzed records of nearly 100,000 people who had no history of heart problems.

BROWN:  "Our study found that aspirin treatment was associated with a 24 percent reduction in the risk of the most common type of stroke in women and a 32 percent reduction in heart attacks in men."

SKIRBLE:  Doctors recommend aspirin as a preventive measure for people with a history of heart disease because it promotes blood flow and helps prevent blood clots normally associated with cardiovascular disease or stroke.  But Dr. Brown says patients must also consider another risk.

BROWN:  "In both men and women there was an approximately 70 percent increase in the risk of bleeding associated with the taking of aspirin."

SKIRBLE:  The study results were the same no matter what the aspirin dose.  For that reason doctors recommend the lowest possible dose - or 81 milligrams - for people at high risk for heart problems like smokers, people with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a family history of heart disease.

MUSIC: "Heart" from the 1994 Broadway show, "Damn Yankees"

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

Noma is a disfiguring mouth disease. It's a little-known condition found in many extremely poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.  VOA's Jessica Berman has more on a disease that has gotten little attention from the health community.

BERMAN:  Noma comes from the Greek word nemo, which means to "graze" or to "devour," and its ravages can be seen on the faces of children who have it.  The disease is characterized by massive mouth ulcers that erode the gums and then the face.

In 1998, the World Health Organization estimated 140,000 children around the world are afflicted each year with noma.  But Cyril (SEE-rul) Enwonwu (EN-WAN-woo), a professor of biomedical sciences at the School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, says the WHO figure greatly underestimates the actual number of victims.  He believes WHO counted only those youngsters who are treated in hospitals, which he says represents only 10 percent of the cases of noma.

ENWONWU:  "Many children with noma are hidden, or they die before reaching the hospitals."

BERMAN:  According to Dr. Enwonwu, most cases occur in poor regions of sub-Saharan Africa. 

Noma usually strikes children between the ages of one and four after an illness such as measles or malaria.  The children are not vaccinated against routine illnesses, their families sleep with their animals, and they drink filthy water.  Also, children with noma are extremely malnourished.  Death occurs in seventy to eighty percent of the cases from massive infection. 

There's also stigma attached to the disfiguring disease, and Dr. Enwonwu believes children with noma  are sometimes the victim of infanticide.

ENWONWU:  "It's not something one can speak of with any degree of certainty because people are reluctant to talk about it.

BERMAN:  Dr. Enwonwu is urging international health officials to focus resources toward ensuring the immunization, nutritional and dental needs of families at risk for noma, including treating any suspicious mouth lesions. 

Professor Cyril Enwonwu described noma in an essay entitled "The Ulcer of Poverty," in the January 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Time again for our Website of the Week, and we're highlighting a specialized tool to help you find some of the best science info online, including a lot of material you won't find with an ordinary search engine.

Seventeen different U.S. government organizations participate in, but Eleanor Frierson says the inclusion of several national libraries gives the site a broader sweep than you might expect.

FRIERSON:  "We have the National Agricultural Library, the National Library of Medicine, and the National Library of Education. These libraries go out and figure out the best information from anywhere that has to do with education, agriculture, nutrition, food, medicine and public health."

Frierson is co-chair of the inter-agency group behind  She says that search engines like Google can help you find information you want among billions of web pages on the Internet. But there is an enormous amount of hidden content ? the so-called "deep web" ? buried in databases and otherwise not accessible to ordinary web searches.

FRIERSON:  "One of the big deals about is that we make it possible for one search to open a large number of databases that are not searched by the major search engines."

U.S. government agencies study AIDS, mount missions to distant planets, develop more productive crop species.  But you don't have to know what agency might have the information you need. Search for "avian flu," for example, and you'll get hits from the Agriculture Department, the National Institutes of Health, and others.

And after your initial search, you can get free alerts for weekly e-mail updates.

FRIERSON:  "All people have to do is come to the website, put in the search that they're interested in following, and sign up for the service."

Science information courtesy of Uncle Sam ? that's the U-S government ? at, or get the link from our site,

Finally, today: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was one of the 18th century men who led America to independence. And he was as much a Renaissance man as we have had in our history. Political leader, businessman, inventor. Maybe you've seen his picture on the U.S. $100 bill, with his long hair and fussy clothes. But don't be fooled by the old fashioned appearance. As we hear from VOA's Adam Phillips in Franklin's adopted home city of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin ? whose 300th birthday was Tuesday ? was not only thoroughly modern, he was one of the great scientists of the age.

PHILLIPS:  The variety and dazzle of Benjamin Franklin's accomplishments as a scientist-inventor would put him in the first tier of American historical figures. Franklin invented, for example, a catheter to treat his brother's kidney stones, and he outlined a theory of the surface physics of oil and water that stands today. Franklin was extremely well-versed in botany, geology, and astronomy, and  he developed several insightful hypotheses regarding world weather patterns, climate change, tornado formations, and the relationship between winds and the Earth's rotation. 

Page Talbot is curator of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," a large, traveling exhibition sponsored by Philadelphia's Franklin Tercentenary.

TALBOT:  "He wasn't a book-smart kind of a person. He wasn't a theoretician. He was interested in the practical application of knowledge."  

PHILLIPS:  One of the better-known examples of that interest, says Ms. Talbot, is the wood-burning, cast iron, furnace box called the "Pennsylvanian Stove" ? later dubbed the "Franklin Stove."  It was a safer, more efficient way to heat a home than the open fireplaces then commonly in use.  

TALBOT: "It was his idea of drawing cold air in and running it through a series of chambers ? during which place  it was going to get hotter ? and projecting it back out  into the room."

PHILLIPS:  Franklin never patented his inventions, wishing instead to share them, free, for the common good. But most of them sprang from a desire to improve his own quality of life. For instance, he invented bifocal lenses because it annoyed him to switch glasses depending on what he wanted to see.   

TALBOT:  "So he talks about how he took the pieces from one pair of glasses and put it to another and  sort of put them in the frame and 'Ta Da!' he came up with bifocals."

PHILLIPS:  Some of Franklin's most impressive scientific achievements occurred as a byproduct of his other duties. For example, while acting as Deputy Postmaster General for North America, he was often asked why it took longer to sail from England to North America than the reverse. He correctly surmised that the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream ? a massive current which flows across the Atlantic from the Americas to Europe ? was helping to speed the east-bound ships.

REMER:  "I think he is probably, of all the American historical figures, the person you'd most want to meet." 

PHILLIPS:  That's Rosalind Remer, executive director of the Franklin Tercentenary. She says Benjamin Franklin's temperament and his love of experimentation were ideally suited to his time, which historians call the Age of Enlightenment. It was an era where reason, not religious faith alone, was gaining ground as a way to understand the natural world.   

REMER:  "The idea was you could test something by hypotheses and doing some experiments and determining whether your hypothesis holds true or not. Before the Enlightenment, a natural disaster would have been assumed to be an act of God. But thinkers began to question exactly what caused things to happen."

PHILLIPS:  Benjamin Franklin is famous for his work with electricity. He was the first to establish that lightning is electricity, and that it jumps between points with opposite electrical charges.  

But Franklin did not work in isolation. He corresponded with most of the great scientific thinkers of his day, and his own research was published and translated into several languages, just as scientific papers are today. Rosalind Remer says thespirit of international scientific cooperation that Franklin encouraged continues today. She is sure Franklin would have loved the Internet. 

REMER:  "He did say that he was born too early. He said he wished he could have been born 200 years later to see what was happening in the world. He was interested in everything and so he took the time to find out more and to tell the world about it."

PHILLIPS:  Rosalind Remer is executive director of the Franklin Tercentenary, the year-long celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birth day, which is kicking off this week in his adopted home city. . For Our World, this is Adam Phillips in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Our show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our 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 Our World.