This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Doug Johnson. This week -- we look back at some of the major science news of two-thousand-three. We tell about new powers for the World Health Organization ... and a new research publication that is free of charge.
We also tell about the new disease SARS ... and the continuing fight against AIDS.
In October, a group of medical researchers launched a free scientific publication on the Internet. The researchers formed the group three years ago as the Public Library of Science. They urged scientific publishers to put reports on the Internet without charge. They said it was unfair to charge for the results of research many times paid for by the public. In the end, the group decided to start its own free publications.
The first is called the Public Library of Science Biology, or P-L-O-S Biology for short. The writers of the reports pay the costs of editing and publishing. Other scientists read the articles to judge if the work should be published. The Web site is w-w-w dot publiclibraryofscience -- all one word -- dot o-r-g.
One of the first reports published in P-L-O-S Biology made a lot of news. It told about devices placed in the brains of monkeys. These devices permitted the animals to control a machine with their thoughts.
Scientists did the experiments at Duke University in North Carolina. They placed tiny wires in several areas of the brains of two rhesus monkeys. Each monkey learned to hold a stick to control the movement of a robotic arm. The arm appeared on a computer screen as part of a game.
Later, the researchers disconnected the stick. They wondered if the monkeys could still move the robotic arm on the screen just by thinking. The researchers were not the only ones surprised when the answer was yes. They say the monkeys were surprised too. And their ability at brain control improved over time.
The researchers said this was great news for people who cannot move their arms or legs. Such a system could help disabled people in different ways. It might help them communicate using a computer and their thoughts. And it might help them come to think of robotic arms and other devices as extensions of themselves.
It might even help them send messages from their brains directly to the muscles to move their own arms and legs again.
The researchers in North Carolina are planning to begin experiments with people in two-thousand-four. They have already shown that people produce brain signals like those the monkeys used in the experiment. But longer studies are needed to prove that the devices are safe and good for more than just simple tasks. Then, someday, a person might control a computer or other machine in only the time it takes to think.
Another major science story of two-thousand-three was the approval of new powers for World Health Organization. These have expanded its ability to intervene when a country faces a health crisis that could spread to other countries. The W-H-O can also now use unofficial reports such as news stories to confirm an outbreak of disease.
All one-hundred-ninety-two members of W-H-O approved the new rules at a meeting in May. The W-H-O is part of the United Nations.
The changes are part of an effort to rewrite the International Health Regulations. These were first published in nineteen-sixty-nine. The members also urged the W-H-O to use the experiences and knowledge gained from recent crises when it makes further changes.
The new rules permit the W-H-O to send teams to investigate a severe health situation anywhere in the world. The teams could also make sure a country is doing enough to control the situation. The health agency wants to create an improved system of communication with officials in each country.
The new rules also officially give the W-H-O the power to declare international health threats -- just as it did this past year with SARS.
The W-H-O recognized the need for stronger international health rules following the discovery of severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS began in China late in two-thousand-two. But the Chinese government did not officially confirm it until February of two-thousand-three. That gave the lung infection time to spread while it went unreported.
The W-H-O will now be able to intervene even when a country denies it has a health problem. For years, experts have criticized the legal structure that governs W-H-O action. Existing rules permitted the agency to collect information about diseases only after a government officially announced a crisis, not before. Also, the rules required W-H-O members to report only outbreaks of cholera, plague or yellow fever.
The World Health Organization is expected to complete reforms to the International Health Regulations in two-thousand-five. The U-N agency will not gain any ability to punish a country that disobeys the new rules. Still, the SARS crisis showed that the W-H-O could take steps on its own to stop the spread of a disease. W-H-O officials, for example, made the decision to warn people not to travel to places affected by SARS.
SARS was a big medical science story of two-thousand-three. Doctors describe it as an unusual form of pneumonia. Pneumonia is a general term for many kinds of lung infections.
SARS may cause several kinds of reactions. These include high body temperature, diarrhea, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. The disease is caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Some members of the coronavirus family are among the many that cause the common cold.
Scientists identified the cause of SARS faster than many thought possible. Yet that was only the first task for laboratories around the world. The job now is create a vaccine to prevent the sickness. Tests on humans could begin early in the new year.
Early tests on monkeys have shown some good results. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, injected six rhesus monkeys with a genetically engineered vaccine against SARS. Two weeks later, the monkeys showed a defense-system reaction against the virus.
The SARS outbreak, which began in China, infected eight-thousand people in almost thirty countries. It killed more than seven-hundred-seventy of them. Other diseases are far more deadly than SARS. Yet SARS has shown how quickly a viral infection can spread around the world thanks to a modern invention. In fact, its one-hundredth anniversary was celebrated just this month -- the airplane.
Our final major science story of two-thousand-three deals with one of the biggest international health threats of all. The United Nations reported that AIDS infected and killed more people than ever this year. It says that between thirty-four-million and forty-six-million people are infected with H-I-V, the virus that causes the disease. Of that number, about five-million became infected this year.
Around three-million people died of AIDS this year. That was two-hundred-thousand-more than last year. Southern Africa remains the most severely affected area of the world. But Doctor Peter Piot, the head of the U-N-AIDS program, said AIDS is spreading fastest in Eastern Europe, especially Russia. And he said there could be major increases in China, India and Indonesia.
The World Health Organization has announced a plan to provide medicine to three-million people with AIDS by two-thousand-five. These drugs suppress the virus. The plan aims to get drugs to half the people most in need.
The W-H-O says around six-million people in developing countries have H-I-V infections that require treatment. Currently, it says, fewer than three-hundred-thousand are being treated.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Doug Johnson. And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.