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MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: The architecture of coral reefs ... challenges facing farmers in Haiti ... and how computers and mobile phones are making inroads in health care.

CURIOSO:  "They didn't want a message that says 'it's time to take your antiretroviral pill.' And instead, they would like a motivational message, like for example, 'it's time for your life.'"  
E-health in developing countries, a low-tech test for brain concussion, and more.

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

NASA Official Downplays Importance of Moon Base

The head of NASA, Charles Bolden, told senators this week that establishing a base on the moon is not necessary before heading to what he called the ultimate destination: Mars.

Bolden appeared on Capitol Hill to defend the Obama administration's space budget, which cut programs aimed at returning astronauts to the moon.

The proposed budget includes additional money to extend the life of the International Space Station to 2020, which Bolden said could be used to prepare for a Mars mission. Along the way, the moon could be explored using roving vehicles.

BOLDEN:   "You will inevitably have to go to the moon, but you'll spend a lot of time on the International Space Station, now that we're going to have it there until 2020, developing some of the technologies. I don't think humans need to go an live on the moon to do anything anymore. We have rovers that have come out of the Constellation program that enable us to put astronauts on the surface of the moon for a month at a time, completely self-sustained, and we don't have to build habitats."

But the chairman of the Senate space subcommittee, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, said the administration's budget cuts put America's space leadership at risk.

NELSON:  "By eliminating the plans for a heavy-lift vehicle and a spacecraft capable of excursions below low earth orbit, the U.S. this senator fears, is going to be on the sidelines while other countries continue to make incremental progress toward destinations like the moon."

The space shuttle Endeavour ended its most recent mission last Monday, with a rare nighttime landing. Just four more flights are scheduled for the three decade-old shuttle program.

Plan Would Eliminate AIDS/HIV within 30 Years

In medical news, researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which ended this week, have suggested a way to virtually wipe out AIDS over the next several decades. As we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, they propose blanket HIV testing and the aggressive use of anti-AIDS drugs.

BERMAN:  As scientists continue to turn up empty-handed in the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS, some researchers are focusing their attention on what some consider to be the only real success so far in the war against HIV - anti-retroviral drugs that suppress the viral load, or amount of virus in the blood, to such low levels that HIV-positive individuals are virtually non-infectious.

AIDS researchers with the South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis (SACEMA) are proposing a strategy for blanket testing for the majority of the world's most at-risk populations and putting those who are found to be HIV-positive on a lifetime course of anti-AIDS drugs.

The center's director, John Hargrove, says educational programs aimed at getting people to avoid risky behavior have so far not worked very well.

Increased use of anti-retroviral drugs hasn't helped much either, Hargrove says, because treatment generally comes too late in the course of the disease of many individuals.

But according to a mathematical model, Hargrove says a program of early testing and treatment could turn the epidemic around in three decades.

HARGROVE:  "If in fact you get people very soon after they are HIV-positive and put them on anti-retrovirals, you reduce the aggregate viral load in the entire population. Therefore you will reduce the rate at which new infections occur."

BERMAN:  Success will not come quickly. Hargrove says there will continue to be a lot of new HIV infections for a while.

HARGROVE:  "But slowly as people die out, as we all do die, and you are just preventing more new infections. And the mathematics simply indicates if we manage to do this, if we manage to test people once a year and get them immediately on antiretroviral drugs, this will be the logical outcome."

BERMAN:  More than 30 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, which claims two million lives each year.

Trials are under way or about to begin in the US, Canada and sub-Saharan Africa to see whether giving antiretroviral drugs to uninfected individuals in high risk populations lowers transmission rates. In studies of mother-to-child transmission, anti-AIDS drugs reduce the risk of infection from HIV positive mothers to their uninfected newborns by more than 90 percent.

Hargrove acknowledges that some people might consider blanket testing an invasion of privacy.

Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Low-Tech Test Identifies Most Concussion Victims

You may have been following the Winter Olympics, which began under a cloud after the death of a Georgian competitor on the luge track. The games feature many events where athletes risk taking blows to the head. In Vancouver - and on playing fields around the world - there is growing awareness of the danger of concussions. As Jim Hawk reports, a new study highlights an effective test for brain injury using a cheap and simple field test:

HAWK:  When a fall or blow to the head shakes the brain violently inside the skull, it can be bruised and battered. That can lead to temporary loss of coordination, headache, blurred vision, and impaired reflexes. But it's not always easy to tell that someone has had a concussion. Athletes tend to want to get back into the action, even if they felt a little dizzy after a rough tumble. And after a concussion, even a mild one, the brain needs time to rest and heal. Repeated brain injury can lead to long-term or permanent disability.

Previous studies have shown that reaction time is slower after a concussion, and it can be tested in the lab using computers and special software. But one researcher has gone back to the basics in designing a simple field test for injury, using nothing more than a long wooden dowel rod marked off in centimeters embedded in a hockey puck. The person being tested extends their arm off a table with their hand curved around - but not touching - the puck, and the test begins.

ECKNER:  "The person doing the testing holds the device suspended vertically so the hockey puck is actually inside the open hand of the person being tested. Without warning, the person doing the test releases the device that begins to fall. The person who is being tested then catches it as quickly as they can, and based on how many centimeters it falls that can easily be converted into a time, which is their reaction time."

HAWK:  Dr. James Eckner of the University of Michigan Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation recruited a group of 209 college athletes. He did an initial baseline test to measure their reaction times before the playing season began. When a player was struck in the head and the ruler test indicated a slower time, he was brought in for a more accurate clinical test.

ECKNER:  "We had eight athletes that had concussions that we were able to bring back and retest, and we found that seven of those eight had longer reaction times after the concussion than they did before. And on average, they were about 15 percent slower after the concussion than they were at their baseline."

HAWK:  Eckner says his device is simple to use and affordable for schools facing tight budgets.

HAWK:  Eckner says a follow up study of the concussion test will include both a control group and a larger number of athletes. The results of the initial study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology conference in April, and a summary appears on the group's website.

I'm Jim Hawk.



E-Health Gains Traction in Developing Countries

The journal Health Affairs devotes its February issue to "E-Health in the Developing World" - e-health being the use of information technology in the service of health care.

It can be as complicated as a national database of medical records or as simple as a daily text message reminding you to take your medicine.

In fact, being a rich Western nation isn't necessarily an advantage when it comes to e-health and its mobile phone-based cousin, m-health. For example, here in the U.S., medical records are still mostly kept on paper, and most doctors still rely more on fax than e-mail.

Health Affairs editor Susan Dentzer says the rapid advance of information technology, along with declining prices, presents what she calls a spectacular opportunity in poor and middle-income nations.

DENZLER  "We know that this is already happening in remote clinics, for example in Rwanda, where cell phone-based technologies are being used to keep track of dispensation of drugs to patients with HIV. And Rwanda is actually at the leading edge of developing nations in tapping these technologies to advance health and health care."

Project Masiluleke in South Africa put an HIV-awareness message in the unused space of certain text messages. That produced a four-fold increase in calls to the national AIDS helpline.

Walter Curioso of the University of Washington described a program in Peru where AIDS patients get a text message reminding them to take their medicine. But from focus groups, they learned that potential users of the service had concerns about privacy.

CURIOSO:  "They didn't want a message that says 'it's time to take your antiretroviral pill.' And instead, they would like to receive a message that uses some kind of code, and instead of sending a message that reminds them of their pill, they would like a motivational message, like for example, 'it's time for your life.'"  

Services like that have been shown to work in low-income countries, and now they're starting to appear in richer countries.

One is a new, phone-based service for expectant mothers from Voxiva, a firm which develops interactive mobile health services. Company co-founder Pamela Johnson says the inspiration for the new product comes from the success of m-health initiatives in developing countries.

JOHNSON:  "Text4baby is the first real m-health service launched in the United States focused on pregnant women, where women can text 51141 Baby or Bebe and register for messages during pregnancy and for the first year of life. To me this is a very exciting development of true South-North collaboration."

Information technology also has strong potential in hospitals and clinics. But William Hersh of the University of Oregon says it's important to ensure that new technologies actually help patients and the doctors and nurses who serve them.

HERSH:  "Any time you introduce information technology anywhere, but especially in health care organizations, you need to be cognizant of the clinical work flow. You can't make life worse for clinicians. And you also have to understand the local needs and capabilities, which I think we see with m-health and emerging technologies there."

Writing in Health Affairs, Hersh stresses the need for a well-trained workforce in developing countries who can bring the advantages of information technology to the health care setting.

Collecting patient data or ordering drugs and lab tests using handheld devices can be very effective in reducing errors. Hamish Fraser of the U.S.-based non-profit group Partners in Health, says several studies have demonstrated how the technology can help patients.

FRASER  "There's really clear evidence, as there has been in the United States for example, that getting a good laboratory system together that can actually report this data directly to the clinicians can really impact on the accuracy, the timeliness and the use of that data."

But Fraser says information technology specialists may have a tendency to focus on the technology and not see things from the user's point of view. So, for example, one risk is in trying to collect too much information.

FRASER  "There would be an eight-page form, and really other sites have successfully managed to make this work with 1 page, and that data quality is much better in one page, because it's easier to do. I think, to me, that is the biggest mistake."

You can learn more about what happens when information technology meets health care at the Health Affairs magazine website, healthaffairs.org, and we'll have a link on our site, voanews.com.

US Once-a-Decade Census Featured as Website of the Week

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

Once every 10 years the U.S. government conducts a census of everyone living in the United States. It's mandated in our Constitution, and the information collected is used in a variety of ways. It determines whether states gain or lose seats in Congress, it plays a key role in determining how federal programs distribute some $400 billion to states and localities, it fuels academic research, and it helps businesses decide where to put new stores. The place to learn more is 2010.census.gov.

GROVES:   "Our mission is to give you, the public, the best statistical information about our economy and society. You may recognize our work when you hear reports on the economy, health care, unemployment, housing, trade, and a lot of other topics."

Census director Robert Groves, in a video on the census website.

The Census Bureau is sending out millions of census forms, and each household in America is asked to fill in the 10-question form and mail it back.

To avoid costly door-to-door follow-ups, the Bureau's TV campaign includes spots aimed at groups considered less likely to send back their form, such as young adults.

YOUNG MAN 1:   "The census is really important because it affects how money is spent in your community for public services, transportation, road repairs...."
YOUNG WOMAN:  "College grant and loan programs...."
YOUNG MAN 2:  "The census is a pretty big deal then because, depending on where those funds go, that's the areas that are going to get the most allocation of those funds."

Members of ethnic minorities are also less likely to answer the census, so the census website includes videos designed to reassure people who may fear contact with federal officials. One of the clips features Detroit official Durene Brown.

BROWN:   "We need to get rid of any fears that they might have about privacy or any other issues. We just need for every single person, baby, older person, teenager - everybody needs to be counted."

Census day is April 1. Learn more about America's once-a-decade census at 2010.census.gov, or get the link from our site, VOAnews.com.

MUSIC:  Spyro Gyra - "You Can Count On Me"

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

Haitian Farmers Need Help as Planting Season Looms, says UN Food Chief

The director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says Haiti's farmers need emergency aid to ensure success in the crop planting season that's about to begin. In an interview with VOA's Steve Baragona, FAO chief Jacques Diouf says international funding to restore Haiti's agriculture must improve in order to avoid another food crisis in a few months' time.

BARAGONA:  Jacques Diouf says the first priorities in the aftermath of the devastating January 12 earthquake have been rescuing survivors and providing medical care, food, water, sanitation, and shelter.

DIOUF:  "And rightly so. But parallel to that focus, we need to look forward and plan ahead."

BARAGONA:  Diouf says the response to a $70 million U.N. request to rebuild Haiti's agriculture has been disappointing, and the March planting season is about to begin. Sixty percent of Haiti's food production takes place in the upcoming season. But the earthquake damaged or destroyed seed supplies, delivery roads, and irrigation canals, and buried many farmers' tools in rubble.

BARAGONA:  Haiti imports more than half of its food and about 80 percent of its rice, the staple grain. That makes the country vulnerable to food price shocks like those in 2007 and 2008 that triggered riots and toppled the prime minister. FAO director-general Diouf says projects undertaken in the wake of the food price crisis, but before the earthquake struck, had boosted domestic food production by 15 percent. So, he says, he is optimistic about the country's prospects for the future.

DIOUF:  "If we are able to ensure that the Haitian people get long-term support to address the root causes of their poverty and their difficulty, if we are able to ensure that the right investments are made, then the Haitian people will be able to rise from the ashes."

BARAGONA:  Turning to global food supplies, Diouf cautions that the population is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent by mid-century, the world's climate is changing, and bio-fuels are diverting significant amounts of food crops. In fact, he says, except for bigger stocks of grain reserves, not much has changed since just before the food price spikes of 2007 and 2008.

DIOUF:  "All the other factors that led to the price crisis are all here. They have not changed. So, I think that, if we have - and I pray that we don't have it - serious problems of flood and drought in major exporting countries, we're back to square one. We'll have the exact same crisis as we had in 2007-2008."

BARAGONA:  Jacques Diouf says nations need to invest much more in agriculture to avoid a repeat of the hunger and instability brought on by that crisis.

Steve Baragona, VOA News, Washington.

Coral Reef Shaped by Rain Thousands of Years Ago

Coral reefs are gathering places for diverse marine species, and they have long been threatened by pollution.

More recently, a new threat has come from increased carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change. But some of that CO2 ends up in the oceans, where rising concentrations of the gas could impair the growth of coral and, some scientists say, possibly dissolve reef material.

And this week we learned that carbon dioxide has shaped at least one coral reef system, according to research presented by a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, home of the National Coral Reef Institute.

Sam Purkis has been studying corals in the Red Sea, off the Saudi Arabian coast, and he's put together a picture of how those reefs formed thousands of years ago.

First of all, it was a lot wetter back then.

PURKIS:  "Between six and 10 thousand years ago, the Saharan region was influenced by a sort of monsoonal activity, and we perhaps had as much as 10 times greater rainfall in the region than we do today."

That was near the end of the last ice age, when sea levels were tens of meters lower than today, exposing rock that is now well underwater.

PURKIS:  "The reason that's relevant is that as rain falls, CO2 from the atmosphere dissolves into that rain, and that's very corrosive to exposed carbonate rocks. And they start to erode with a particular pattern."

Purkis describes the pattern as a honeycomb, with hills and valleys - a pattern which can be seen in the reefs today but which is also confirmed by a mathematical model that he and his colleagues developed. That suggests to Professor Purkis that the coral reefs in the Red Sea built up from the eroded rock, rather than on the backs of earlier coral, as is typical of reefs elsewhere.

PURKIS:  "What we're looking at is an ancient template, which was presented to the corals. That template was formed by monsoonal erosion in the very wet Arabia of the time. It eroded those rocks, which became the sea floor as sea level rose, and that template was simply adopted by the coral reef."

Purkis and his colleagues have been mapping the reefs of the Red Sea - covering an area of more than 25,000 square kilometers - using satellite and aerial images, plus other data. They will soon be traveling on their research ship to the Caribbean, the Galapagos, Indonesia, Madagascar, and points in between. They plan to use techniques they've developed for fast, high-resolution mapping of coral reefs and their ecological status.

PURKIS:  "And by providing these map products, this vast geospatial database, to local partners, it gives them a lot of uplift in their management  capacity when they start to talk about defining marine protected areas and fishery reserves and so on and so forth."

Sam Purkis says he and his team plan to return to the Red Sea in five or six years, to see how the reefs they have so carefully mapped have been affected by climate change.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

Please stay in touch. You can email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or write us at:

    Our World
    Voice of America
    Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our program was edited by Rob Sivak. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

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.

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