Malaria Adds to Ethiopia's Troubles During a Food Crisis / How Much Lead in Children's Blood Is Safe? / Two Women and a Deadly Complication of Childbirth

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

This week -- the problem of malaria in Ethiopia gets worse ... Questions about whether any amount of lead in children's blood is safe ... And a further look at a problem that can be deadly for women during childbirth.

Ethiopia faces new problems as it tries to fight the spread of malaria at the same time as a food crisis. The malaria parasite has become resistant to the medicines being given to kill it. Malaria is caused by a parasite insect that mosquitoes inject into the people they bite.

The United Nations says there was a slow response to unexpected emergency needs in Ethiopia. Also, U-N agencies say there has been what they call a "lack of clarity" on who should receive free drugs.

The problem is greatest in the Southern Nations and Nationalities People's Region of Ethiopia. This highland area has not had a big problem with malaria in the past. Now the U-N says there are high death rates.

Malaria was already one of the biggest killers in Ethiopia. Each year about one hundred-thousand people die of malaria in that country. U-N officials say the malaria crisis is expected to reach its height sometime this month.

Ethiopia was already struggling with a lack of food because of dry weather. Now that rains have come, the World Food Program says the malaria crisis will affect harvests. It says the high risk of malaria in many parts of the country will limit the productivity of farmers.

Diseases like malaria can be hard to identify when people are already sick from hunger. As a result, U-N officials say areas where people have malaria and diseases spread by dirty water are being wrongly reported as food crisis areas.

Aid groups have intervened with shipments of food. But U-N officials say a good emergency reaction in the area of food aid is being threatened by a lack of support in health and other areas. They say more non-food help is needed to make sure water and health centers are clean and that people can get treatment.

U-N officials say feeding centers are not able to provide the treatment that thousands of children need. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the number of deaths is unknown. Young children and pregnant women are at greatest risk of death from malaria.

The U-N Children's Fund says water supplies are being taken to areas around Ethiopia to help women and children. So is equipment to make dirty water safe. UNICEF estimates that more than four-million people are in urgent need of clean, safe water.

For years, scientists have known that lead can damage the brain. Lead is a soft metal with a number of industrial uses. It may be found in paint and fuel. Lead is especially dangerous to children. In the most severe cases, a child can die. In less severe cases, children can develop learning difficulties.

Lead poisoning can be hard to recognize, except through blood tests. Blood tests can identify a problem early when it may be possible to treat. Lead is measured in micrograms per deciliter of blood.

In the United States, federal officials consider levels below ten micrograms per deciliter acceptable. The government established this level in nineteen-ninety-one. Before nineteen-seventy, children were considered to have lead poisoning at levels above sixty micrograms per deciliter. By nineteen-eighty-five, officials had reduced that to twenty-five micrograms per deciliter.

But a study reported earlier this year suggested that even the current level is not safe. In fact, in the study, levels below ten micrograms per deciliter appeared to cause the greatest damage to intelligence.

Two scientists from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, reported the findings in The New England Journal of Medicine. The study followed one-hundred-seventy-two children from the Rochester, New York, area. Scientists did blood tests on the children a number of times between the ages of six months and five years. The children also took tests to measure their intelligence.

The researchers say most of the damage to intelligence happened at blood levels below ten micrograms per deciliter. They found that higher levels produced only small additional reductions in intelligence. They also noted that the findings will need to be repeated in further studies.

In the United States, lead has been banned from paint and fuel. As a result, levels of lead in children's blood have dropped more than eighty percent in the past thirty years. However, the researchers say lead poisoning is still a problem among children in poor families. Many of these children live in older housing, which is more likely to still contain lead paint. Lead particles can fall onto floors and onto children's toys.

Children who touch lead dust can get the material in their systems if they put their hands into their mouths. Babies often put objects into their mouth, and can also get lead into their blood that way.

Last month we talked about some of the problems that can happen during childbirth. One of the most serious is too much bleeding. To continue our report, we present the story of two new mothers: one from India, the other from Nicaragua. One story has a happy ending. The other does not. Together, they show the importance of knowing what to do in case there is a problem when a woman gives birth.

From India, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood tells the story of Sunita. She was pregnant with her second child. Her pregnancy, for the most part, was normal. Sunita gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

But just after the baby arrived, Sunita became cold and could not move her body. A small loss of blood is normal during childbirth. But there was a large amount of blood around her body. The local health worker said Sunita needed to be taken to a hospital right away. It took an hour for the family to get ready to leave. When they arrived at the hospital hours later, it was too late.

Sunita died of shock. She had lost too much blood. She was twenty-two years old.

From the other side of the world, the Population Reference Bureau relates the story of Leonor in Nicaragua. The story was told by a visitor to a project that worked to improve birth care in several health centers in that country.

Leonor was at her home in a small village. She was giving birth to her first child. A woman known as a traditional birth attendant was with her to help. This woman saw that the placenta had not come out within thirty minutes after the baby was born. The placenta is the organ that connects the baby to the mother's uterus by way of the umbilical cord.

The woman assisting Leonor knew there was a problem. When the placenta does not come out, there is a risk of too much bleeding. The Population Reference Bureau says this problem is the leading cause of death among women during childbirth in Nicaragua.

So Leonor's brother walked to a highway near the village. He stopped a driver and rode to the local health center to get help. An emergency vehicle went to bring Leonor to the center. She arrived within ninety minutes of giving birth, and a doctor treated her immediately. Soon, Leonor was resting, and was able to breastfeed her baby son.

Even if a woman has one pregnancy without problems, the next one could be different. This is why health experts say it is important for a skilled person to be present when a baby is born, to identify any problems quickly. And they say families should know when, where and how they will take the mother to get help if there are problems.

The White Ribbon Alliance says that in every case the cord that connects the baby to the mother should be cut and tied. Cutting the umbilical cord helps the woman's uterus get smaller, so there is less bleeding.

And, finally, the alliance says new mothers should begin to breastfeed their babies immediately. A mother's first milk is very healthy for newborns, and breastfeeding helps protect babies from disease.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Karen Leggett and George Grow. Our producer was Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty. And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS — September 9, 2003: Malaria Adds to Ethiopia's Troubles During a Food Crisis / How Much Lead in Children's Blood Is Safe? / Two Women and a Deadly Complication of Childbirth
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