Africa Malaria Day 2003 / Study: Apes 'Critically Endangered'

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

This week -- a report about malaria -- a major killer of children in Africa. Also, a warning about the future of Africa's apes.

This Friday is Africa Malaria Day. The message of this year's observance is simple: "Roll Back Malaria, Protect Women and Children!"

Each year, malaria kills more than one-million people. Some estimates put the number at up to almost three-million. Most of the deaths are in Africa. Most of the victims are children. The World Health Organization estimates that one African child dies every thirty seconds from this disease.

Each year, hundreds of millions of African children get malaria. The signs include high body temperature, diarrhea, head pain and uncontrollable shaking. Those who do survive a severe case often suffer from learning problems or brain damage.

Mosquitoes spread malaria. The insects carry a sickness-causing organism made of just one cell. This parasite enters the blood of people bitten by mosquitoes.

There are different malaria parasites in the world. Most malaria infections south of the Sahara Desert are caused by the Plasmodium falciparum (plas-MO-dee-um fall-SIP-ah-rum) parasite. This kind produces the most severe and life-threatening form of the disease.

There are drugs to treat malaria. One is chloroquine (KLOR-oh-kwine). This widely used medicine, however, has lost its effectiveness in most parts of Africa. Over the past few decades, the falciparum parasite has developed resistance to chloroquine.

One of the best ways to prevent malaria is to sleep under mosquito nets that are treated with a chemical that kills the insects. But these nets must be sprayed two times a year. African governments and private companies are now working together to develop chemicals that last for four years. Also, some African governments have cut taxes on these nets. Experts say some of the best nets are being made right in Africa.

Insecticide-treated nets are important not just for children but also for pregnant women. Malaria is a leading cause of death during pregnancy. Women are more likely to get malaria when they become pregnant. The disease can produce a lack of iron in the mother's blood. Also, pregnant women with malaria are more likely to have babies with low birth weight.

Economists estimate that Africa loses about twelve-thousand-million dollars a year because of malaria.

African scientists are working to fight this disease. Still, almost eighty percent of all the reports written about malaria include experts from outside Africa. But there is a project to change the situation. This three-year-old project is called the Multilaterial Initiative on Malaria -- or simply, MIM.

MIM uses money from private companies, international organizations and governments to pay for research in Africa by Africans. MIM has supported thirty-seven investigators in twenty-four African countries.

Last November, more than one-thousand-two-hundred people attended a Pan-African meeting on malaria. It took place in Tanzania. The delegates included Doctor Ebrahim Samba, director of the Africa Regional Office of the World Health Organization. He said African countries must spend more of their own money to lead the war against malaria. Doctor Samba said money to buy weapons should be used to fight malaria instead.

African scientists say they need to be able to earn more money. They need more and better laboratories. And they need more chances to get high-level training at local universities. There is often money for Africans to study in countries outside of the continent. But the students often end up staying in those countries. This makes it clear that young African scientists need more and better reasons to come back home.

Africa Malaria Day this Friday will start this year's campaign to fight the disease. The Roll Back Malaria campaign was first launched in nineteen-ninety-eight. Two years later, in Nigeria, forty-four African heads of state and their representatives met in Abuja to discuss the situation. They agreed to set a target to cut the number of malaria cases in Africa in half by two-thousand-ten.

Organizers of this year's Africa Malaria Day want African leaders to renew their support for the Abuja Declaration.

You are listening to the VOA Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.

A researcher says efforts to protect gorillas and chimpanzees in West Africa have failed. He says the population of apes in the wild appears to be decreasing at a fast rate. Peter Walsh of Princeton University in New Jersey led an international team of researchers. The American magazine Nature published their findings.

The team studied gorillas and chimpanzees in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Eighty percent of the animals live in those two countries. Researchers say this is because Gabon and Republic of Congo still have a lot of forest areas. Chimpanzees makes their nests in trees. That is where they sleep. Gorillas use leaves and branches to make their nests on the ground.

The scientists counted nests during a period of four years. They compared the number with a study done in the early nineteen-eighties. They found a fifty-six percent drop.

The report says hunting is responsible for some of the loss of apes. This was expected. The scientists, however, say they were surprised by how much the Ebola virus had also affected the ape population.

The scientists believe thousands of apes may have been died in outbreaks of Ebola. In one area, the virus appears to have cut the ape population by more than ninety percent since nineteen-ninety-one.

Ebola is one reason why trade in what is called bushmeat is a danger not just to the rare animals that are hunted. People can get Ebola if they eat or come in contact with an ape infected with the virus.

Peter Walsh and his researchers used their findings to consider the future of apes -- the closest relatives to humans. They say the number of wild apes could drop at least eighty percent in western Africa in the next thirty-three years.

But Mr. Walsh says that may be too conservative. The percentage is based on the current rate of decrease. Mr. Walsh says the death rate might be increasing. If nothing is done, he warns that gorillas and chimpanzees could disappear from western equatorial Africa within the next ten years.

Mr. Walsh and his team have suggested steps toward saving the apes. Currently, the World Conservation Union lists apes as endangered. The researchers want the organization to declare gorillas and chimpanzees "critically endangered." This action would support expanded measures to protect gorillas and chimpanzees.

Peter Walsh is also calling for more field research into the spread of Ebola. To do that, he is urging the United States and the European Union to each provide ten-million dollars in emergency spending. And he and his research team are calling for ways to influence governments in Africa to do more to protect apes. The scientists say industrial nations should tie aid and debt cancellation to environmental performance.

Some researchers, however, are not ready to accept the findings by Peter Walsh and his team.

John Oates is a scientist at the City University of New York. He wrote the World Conservation Union's nineteen-ninety-six action plan for African apes. He questions if the most recent method of study provides a true picture of the level of danger to the animals.

Mr. Oates says the researchers should have studied chimpanzees and gorillas separately. He also says populations of apes should be examined across Africa before they are declared critically endangered.

The study team whose results appeared in Nature was made up of researchers from Gabon, Spain, Britain and the United States.

A government official in Gabon told a Nature reporter that chimpanzees and gorillas already are protected there. The environmental official also described the population of apes as, in his words, "quite stable recently."

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Karen Leggett, Jill Moss and Caty Weaver. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Sarah Long. And this is Bob Doughty. Next week: a special report about SARS. What's next, now that scientists have identified the virus that causes this new lung disease.

Voice of America Special English

Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Africa Malaria Day 2003 / Study: Apes 'Critically Endangered'
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