SARS Update / Low-Cost Test for Cervical Cancer / Christopher Reeve Update

I'm Sarah Long with Bob Doughty, and this is the VOA Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.

This week -- a report on severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS ... A study supports a low-cost way to save women in poor countries from cervical cancer ... And a new device may offer hope for paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve and others who cannot breathe on their own.

World health officials are continuing efforts to identify the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS. As of late last week, about eighty people around the world had died from the mysterious influenza-like sickness. Forty-six of the victims lived in China. More than two-thousand people have been infected with the disease. The largest number of cases are in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. However, the disease has also been reported in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

Officials say the number of cases continues to grow and the disease still appears to be spreading around the world.

Health officials are trying to stop the spread of SARS. Last week, the World Health Organization released a warning against traveling to Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. This is the first time the W-H-O has issued a travel warning because of an infectious disease. Each day, the W-H-O is reconsidering the warning for possible changes.

Scientists from around the world are trying to understand the disease. Last week, W-H-O experts traveled to China's Guangdong Province where they suspect SARS first started last year. The team will study the biology of the virus that causes the disease. They also want to know if other viruses or diseases might worsen SARS or speed its spread.

This is the first time U-N health experts have been given permission to visit Guangdong since the disease was first announced. China has been criticized for delaying reports about new cases and hiding information about the disease from the public.

So far, there is no medicine to treat or prevent SARS. Officials first thought that particles from an infected person's mouth spread SARS through the air. Now, however, they suspect the disease is spreading environmentally, through water or human waste systems, for example. However, until this can be proved, officials can only give guarded advice on how to prevent and treat the disease.

SARS is similar to other severe breathing infections. Early signs include fever, headache, body pains and a tired feeling. After about one week, patients may develop a cough and have trouble breathing.

Last week, Carlo Urbani, the World Health Organization doctor who first discovered SARS, became one of its victims. The Italian doctor worked for public health programs in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He first identified the disease in an American businessman at a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam. Doctor Urbani was forty-six years old.

You are listening to the VOA Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS. This is Bob Doughty with Sarah Long in Washington.

Every year, as many as three-hundred-thousand women around the world die from cancer of the cervix. That is more than from any other kind of cancer. The cervix is part of the female reproductive system. It is the opening at the end of the uterus.

Cervical cancers develop slowly, usually over a period of ten or twenty years. There are tests that can find the disease early enough to save a woman's life. In one common test, called a Pap smear, laboratory workers examine questionable cells under a microscope. Many national health systems, though, do not have money for Pap smears or other such tests. As a result, most of the women who die from cervical cancer are in developing countries.

But researchers believe they have now proven a low-cost way to prevent cervical cancer. It requires one simple visit with a trained health worker.

This is how it works: First, the health worker washes the cervix with a mixture of vinegar and water. Vinegar, or acetic acid, is a liquid commonly used in foods and as a cleaner. Doctors have known for a long time that vinegar make lesions on the cervix white. Lesions are small areas of abnormal cells. The white lesions are easy to see with a light.

Next, the medical worker uses liquid carbon dioxide to freeze the lesions. The freezing kills cancer cells before they can fully develop.

American and Thai doctors tested the treatment method in Thailand. They sent twelve trained health workers to farming villages. The workers tested six-thousand woman with the vinegar wash.

The tests found lesions in thirteen percent of the women. Most agreed to immediate treatment with this method. One year later, the researchers tested those women again with the vinegar wash. They found that almost ninety-five percent of the women had no more lesions.

Doctor Paul Blumenthal from Johns Hopkins University led the study. He says almost all of the women treated said they had not felt only minor or moderate pain during the process. The women in the study were between the ages of thirty and forty-five.

The researchers reported their findings in the British medical journal The Lancet. Doctor Blumenthal says similar research is currently being done on four-thousand women in Ghana. Researchers hope to prove that over time, this is the most economic way to prevent cervical cancer.

Vinegar and cotton balls to wash the cervix are easy to find. So are tanks of liquid carbon dioxide. These are used in bottling factories like Coca-Cola and Pepsi operations. Carbon dioxide costs less than the nitrous oxide used by Western doctors. Health workers also need a simple instrument called a speculum to examine the cervix. Doctor Blumenthal says the biggest cost is to train the workers.

Research over several years is still needed to show how effective this method will prove in lowering rates of cervical cancer. Longer research will also show any possible risks from what doctors call "overtreatment." Health workers are trained to freeze areas that turn white with the vinegar. They do not take cells to study under a microscope. So they do not know if the lesions they froze were pre-cancerous or something harmless.

Even so, doctors say that in countries with poor health systems, this method is better than no treatment at all.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus, called the human papillomavirus, or H-P-V. Women can get the virus if they have sex with someone who is already infected. Doctors warn that testing for the virus is important. That is because infections caused by human papillomavirus often produce no signs that can be easily seen.

Eight years ago, American actor Christopher Reeve was thrown from a horse during a riding competition. Mr. Reeve broke his neck. He could no longer move from the neck down. Since then, he has breathed with a respirator machine. In February, doctors performed an operation with the hope that he and others with similar injuries might not need respirators in the future.

The doctors placed small electrical devices in his diaphragm muscle. The experimental system sends bursts of electricity to the muscle and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. As a result, the muscle decreases in size. Air enters the lungs. As the muscle expands again, the lungs expel air -- just like normal breathing.

The doctors worked with a long, thin instrument -- a laparoscope -- through small holes in the chest. Wires link the electrodes to a small battery power pack outside the body. A team in Ohio from University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University developed this method.

Christopher Reeve is fifty years old. He is best known as Superman in four movies. His Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation says the risks and costs of the experimental treatment are lower than those of current methods.

At a press conference, Mr. Reeve said the new device let him breathe on his own for up to fifteen minutes at a time. He described what it was like to escape the noise of the respirator. It was the first time he had heard his own breathing since nineteen-ninety-five.

Science in the News was written by Jill Moss and George Grow, and was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - April 8, 2003: SARS Update / Low-Cost Test for Cervical Cancer / Christopher Reeve Update
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