2004 Year in Science: Tsunami / SARS / Bird Flu / H.I.V. and AIDS / The Little People of Flores / Drug Safety

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Bob Doughty. This week, we look back at the major science stories of two-thousand-four. We look at safety questions about some popular medicines and struggles against SARS, bird flu and other diseases.

We also tell about the bones of small human-like creatures found in Indonesia. But first, a look at the powerful tsunami Sunday that killed tens of thousands of people.

People in many countries are recovering from the effects of a powerful earthquake Sunday in the Indian Ocean. The underwater earthquake created huge waves that struck coastal areas from Indonesia to Somalia. The earthquake caused a series of huge, destructive ocean waves, also called a tsunami.

In the Japanese language, the word tsunami means "harbor wave." Earthquakes are a major cause of tsunamis. But landslides on the ocean floor also can cause huge ocean waves. Other causes are exploding volcanoes and even explosions.

Experts say a tsunami can travel as fast as seven hundred twenty five kilometers an hour. And, the waves can be more than thirty meters high as they move toward land.

Tsunamis can form near the center of an earthquake and travel out in all directions. This means they can affect countries thousands of kilometers from each other.

Tsunamis are most common in the Pacific Ocean. Japan has had the most tsunamis. In the past hundreds of years, one hundred thousand people have been killed by tsunamis in Japan. Six years ago, more than two thousand people died when a tsunami struck Papua New Guinea.

American scientists say the earthquake in the Indian Ocean Sunday reached nine-point-zero on the Richter system of earthquake measurement. They say it also was the fifth strongest earthquake measured since nineteen-hundred.

Another major story of two-thousand-four was the progress being made against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS is a kind of lung infection. It may cause higher than normal body temperature. Patients have difficulty breathing. Their body wastes become soft and watery.

SARS is caused by a coronavirus. Some members of the coronavirus family can cause the common cold.

The first case of SARS was reported in southern China two years ago. Since then, the disease has infected eight-thousand people in almost thirty countries. It killed more than seven hundred seventy of them.

Research scientists in several countries are attempting to develop medicines to prevent SARS. This month, Chinese researchers reported success in the first human test of a preventative vaccine for the disease.

The test involved thirty-six healthy people. Half received a small amount of experimental SARS inactivated vaccine. The others received a stronger version of the medicine. The researchers said all thirty-six people produced antibodies for fighting the disease. Those taking the vaccine suffered minor side effects, such as a higher than normal temperature.

Chinese media say at least ten different kinds of SARS vaccines are being developed. In the United States, tests of an experimental vaccine have begun at the National Institutes of Health, near Washington, D.C.

Another medical story this year involved a virus experts say is more deadly than SARS. It is bird flu. This year, the bird flu virus killed at least thirty-two people in Thailand and Vietnam. The World Health Organization says that almost all the victims got the bird flu from infected chickens. Millions of chickens and other birds have been destroyed across Asia to prevent the disease from spreading.

Health experts fear the bird flu virus will change into a kind that can move from person to person and spread throughout the world. Recently, a W.H.O. official warned that the virus could infect up to thirty percent of the human population. Shigeru Omi also said bird flu could kill between two million and seven million people. He noted that some experts believe that up to fifty million people could die.

This month, the World Health Organization held a meeting to discuss efforts to develop a vaccine to prevent infection by the bird flu virus. Health officials from around the world met in Switzerland. They said experts are concerned about the recent appearance of the virus and infection rates. They warned of a possible pandemic. A pandemic is when a disease spreads around the world.

Scientists are developing two vaccines based on the current bird flu virus in Asia. Testing both of these within a year will cost about thirteen million dollars each.

Another major story is one of the biggest health threats of all. The United Nations reports that about thirty-nine million people around the world are living with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. That is up from almost thirty seven million two years ago.

This year, about three million people died of causes linked to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Five million became infected. These numbers are the highest yet.

Southern Africa remains the most severely affected area. More than sixty percent of all people with H.I.V. live there. The islands of the Caribbean Sea have the next highest rate.

Almost half of all people infected with H.I.V. are women and girls. And, the virus is spreading faster among women than men in most areas. U-N officials say East Asia has the sharpest increase in the number of women infected with H.I.V. in the past two years.

AIDS experts say women are at greater risk because it is physically easier for the female body to become infected during sex. They also say many women cannot demand that their partners use protection. And marriage is no protection if the husband has had sex with someone who is infected. These reasons often combine with sexual violence, a lack of money or education for women.

Another story this year was the discovery of ancient bones in Indonesia. The bones were found last year in a cave on the island of Flores.

A team of Australian and Indonesian scientists reported the discovery in October. The scientists say the bones represent a new kind of human-like creature. They say the creatures stood just less than one meter tall and lived as recently as twelve thousand years ago.

Some experts said the discovery could change the known history of human beings on earth.

Recently, an Indonesian scientist, Teuku Jacob, borrowed most of the bones for study. He says the bones came from human beings with small bodies, not a new creature.

Indonesians had been searching in the Flores area in the nineteen seventies, but stopped their work because of a lack of money. Now, Australian scientists who found the bones fear the Indonesians will keep them and limit who can study them in the future.

Another story this year was the withdrawal of the pain medicine Vioxx. The United States Food and Drug Administration approved Vioxx five years ago. But in September, Merck and Company stopped selling it following a long-term study. The study suggested that people who used Vioxx had an increased chance of heart attacks and strokes.

One recent study found that Vioxx users were nearly three times more likely to suffer a heart attack than people taking a similar drug called Celebrex. America's National Cancer Institute stopped another study this month because Celebrex was found to increase the risk of heart attack. And, a separate study raised safety questions about the pain medicine naproxen, sold as Aleve.

The United States Food and Drug Administration says it is too early to say what action might be taken on Celebrex and Alleve. The agency can legally remove, or recall, a harmful product from the marketplace. Or a company can withdraw its product.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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