New Warnings About Avian Flu / U.S., Germany to Cooperate on Cleaner Energy Technologies / 60 Nations Agree to Link Earth Observation Systems

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long. And I'm Bob Doughty. Coming up: new warnings about bird flu ...

An Earth observation system moves a step closer...

And, President Bush says it is time to move forward after the dispute over the Kyoto Protocol.

Health officials continue to warn people about the threat from avian influenza. One of the most recent warnings came from Doctor Shigeru Omi. He is the Western Pacific director of the World Health Organization. He spoke in Vietnam, where experts held an international conference last week on bird flu.

Doctor Omi said the W.H.O. believes that the world is now in the greatest possible danger of a pandemic. A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a disease. Pandemics of influenza generally happen every twenty to thirty years. Doctor Omi noted that the world has gone almost forty years since the last one.

World health officials are calling on governments to do more to control the spread of the bird flu virus in Asia. But the officials say it will be difficult to change old farming traditions. Chickens and ducks are permitted to move around freely and live close to people. This makes it easier for the virus to spread to humans. And there have already been limited reports of cases where the virus spread from one person to another.

Doctor Omi said the virus h-five-n-one has become more deadly since it first appeared in Hong Kong in nineteen ninety-seven. He says the longer that the virus is in animals, the higher the risk of human cases. And that means the higher the risk of genetic changes in the virus to cause a pandemic.

The director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a similar warning last week. Doctor Julie Gerberding said her agency is preparing in case of a flu pandemic next year. She spoke in Washington, D.C., at the yearly meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The bird flu virus has killed at least forty-five people in Asia in the past year. Doctor Gerberding says almost three out of four people known to have gotten sick have died.

The virus is a member of a family of viruses called h-one. Doctor Gerberding said that each time a new kind of h-one virus has appeared, there has been a pandemic of influenza.

The most recent h-one pandemic was in nineteen eighteen. The so-called Spanish flu killed an estimated twenty million to fifty million people. Doctor Gerberding says the situation now is probably similar to what happened before that outbreak.

There are other warning signs. Scientists at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands reported in September that the bird flu virus can infect house cats. These animals were thought to be resistant to influenza.

Yet during an experiment, the scientists say, the infected cats then spread the virus to other cats. The findings suggest that cats could possibly also spread the virus to humans. Science magazine published the report.

And, last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report on the deaths of a young brother and sister in Vietnam. Both children had been very sick, but neither had a breathing infection. Such an infection is considered a usual sign of avian influenza. Yet researchers found the virus in the four-year-old boy. They believe his nine-year-old sister died of the same disease, although they could not do tests to confirm it.

In the words of Doctor Jeremy Farrar at the Center for Tropical Medicine, part of Oxford University in England: "These cases suggest that the spread of avian influenza could have been underestimated."

You are listening to SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long with Bob Doughty in Washington.

Last week President Bush visited Europe. One of the issues discussed was the Kyoto Protocol which took effect on February sixteenth.

There is strong support in Europe for that treaty. It calls for thirty-five industrial nations to reduce the levels of six gases released into the air. These gases are produced by burning fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

Scientists say carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" trap heat in the atmosphere. Most scientists believe that this is largely responsible for increased temperatures on Earth.

One hundred forty-one countries have joined in the Kyoto Protocol. But developing nations will not have to meet the requirements.

The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol in nineteen ninety-eight. The Senate never approved it. And President Bush rejected the treaty in March of two thousand one. He says it is unfair not to require big developing nations like India and China to also meet the requirements. And he says the treaty would not help the environment enough to balance the damage it would do to the United States economy.

Mr. Bush restated his opposition during a speech in Brussels on his first full day in Europe. But he also said that all sides have expressed their opinions on the Kyoto Protocol. "Now," he said, "we must work together on the way forward."

Mr. Bush suggested that new, cleaner technologies could support economic growth and be environmentally responsible. He noted hydrogen-powered cars as one example.

In Germany, the president met with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. They noted their differences over the Kyoto Protocol. But they promised to cooperate with what the German leader called "the reduction of problems in this area."

Mr. Schroeder said there is room for cooperation especially in the area of technology. Mr. Bush said the two countries would also share their technology with developing countries like China and India.

The United States and Germany released a five-point plan for joint actions on cleaner energy, development and climate change. It calls for increased efforts to improve energy security and reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, while supporting strong economic growth.

The United States produces twenty-five percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Now, more than one hundred fifty American cities have joined an effort to reduce these gases. The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives has organized this effort.

Outreach director Susan Ode says the first step is to decide on a target level to reduce emissions. Then cities carry out projects to reach those goals. They might start, for example, with cleaner-burning fuels in city-owned vehicles.

Almost sixty countries and the European Commission have approved a plan to create the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. One major purpose is to get earlier warnings of severe weather and other natural events.

International organizations are also supporting this American-led plan. Delegates agreed to it on February sixteenth in Brussels during the Third Earth Observation Summit. The United States, Japan, the European Union and South Africa organized the conference.

Many systems on land, in space and in the ocean observe the environment. But most of them do not "talk" to each other. The plan is to link existing systems worldwide. This is expected to take ten years.

Scientists say the "system of systems" will provide information about winter weather, for example, months before winter. It could also show where shortages of rain are most likely.

Farmers could gain information about water resources. Scientists could better observe forest fires and air pollution. Experts say the system may increase understanding of climate change. It could also help identify areas where diseases like malaria are likely to spread. And it might give early warning of events like tsunami.

The first Earth Observation Summit took place in Washington in two thousand three. Since then, more countries have joined the plan. Interest has grown since the earthquake and tsunami waves in the Indian Ocean in December.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Caty Weaver and Cynthia Kirk, who was also our producer. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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Source: New Warnings About Avian Flu / U.S., Germany to Cooperate on Cleaner Energy Technologies / 60 Nations Agree to Link Earth Observation Systems
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