Caffeine Withdrawal Called a Disorder / Scientists Seek to Change Smallpox Virus / 'Kangaroo Mother Care' for Baby Humans

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. On our program this week: an American study recognizes caffeine withdrawal as a disorder and a report says people in wealthy countries have a lot to learn from an animal native to Australia.

But first, scientists suggest genetic engineering experiments with the virus responsible for the disease smallpox.

An advisory committee to the World Health Organization has proposed that scientists be permitted to work with a live, smallpox virus. The committee this month approved a proposal to let scientists carry out genetic experiments with the virus for the first time.

W.H.O. officials say the aim would be to speed the development of drugs that could fight the disease. They say the proposal is just the first step in what could be a long approval process for the experiments. W-H-O member countries are expected to consider the proposal at a meeting in May.

Smallpox is a serious, often deadly disease. A virus called variola is the cause. In nineteen eighty, the W.H.O. declared that smallpox was no longer a health threat to people around the world. The declaration came after an international campaign to increase the use of smallpox vaccines. Vaccines help the body's natural defenses recognize and fight disease.

For years, scientists have debated if the remaining variola virus should be destroyed. Two laboratories have supplies of the live virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operates one such laboratory in the United States. The other is at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia.

Some officials have expressed fear that terrorists may get the virus and use it as a weapon. Many adults were given the smallpox vaccine years ago, but most young people have not been vaccinated. Also, American experts note that some people should avoid getting the vaccine for health reasons.

Several drug treatments have been tested against smallpox, but none has shown much effectiveness. That is one reason why the W.H.O.'s Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research approved the proposal for the experiments.

In one proposed experiment, scientists would put a marker gene into the virus. This gene would shine green when placed under special lighting. The gene would stop shining if a drug destroys the changed virus.

Not everyone thinks the genetic experiments are a good idea. Some scientists believe the process might make the variola virus stronger.

The Advisory Committee has said that placing the marker gene in the virus would not make the disease more dangerous. Geoffrey Smith of Imperial College, London, led the recent meeting of the Committee. He says many conditions and rules would be placed on the experiments.

How important is your morning cup of coffee? Research scientists in the United States have found that people really can develop a need for coffee. They say people who drink coffee every day and then miss a day can develop physical disorders such as headaches.

In general, the more coffee a person drinks, the more severe the disorders are. However, the researchers note that drinking as little as one cup of coffee a day can produce this effect, called caffeine withdrawal.

Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, soft drinks. It also is present in chocolate, cold medicine, and drugs that keep people awake. An estimated eighty to ninety percent of all adults in North America eat or drink products with caffeine.

In the United States, adults who use such products get an average of about two hundred eighty milligrams of caffeine a day. This is the amount of caffeine in about two large cups of coffee.

The American researchers identified more than sixty studies on caffeine withdrawal. They examined each study to test the truthfulness of the reported findings. The researchers identified several common caffeine withdrawal disorders. They include headaches and sleepiness. Some people have difficulty thinking. Others get angry easily or become very sad.

The researchers found that half of the people studied suffered headaches if they did not have caffeine. Thirteen percent had a more serious problem. They were unable to work or do other normal activities. These problems generally resulted twelve to twenty-four hours after stopping caffeine.

Ronald Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, led the study. He noted that caffeine is the most commonly used stimulant in the world. A stimulant is something that produces a temporary increase of activity. The researchers said it is possible for people to free themselves from dependence on caffeine. They say people should slowly reduce the amount of caffeinated products in their diet. Food or drinks with little or no caffeine should be used in place of those with caffeine.

Gabriel Margosis was born at Fairfax Hospital in the American state of Virginia. Gabriel came about ten weeks before he was supposed to. He was too small and underdeveloped to keep his normal body temperature. Doctors immediately placed the newborn in a special machine called an incubator. The incubator helped to keep Gabriel warm. It also continuously measured his breathing, heartbeat and other signs of life.

Elise Margosis did not get to hold her baby until he was five days old. Gabriel was kept in the intensive care area for newborns at the hospital. The area has a lot of modern medical equipment. Yet Elise says that, for all the high technology, she knew her baby needed her to hold him close.

Gabriel's medical team knew that too. So several weeks after giving birth Elise began what is called Kangaroo Mother Care, or K.M.C. It is a method for increasing warmth and closeness between babies and their mothers.

The baby wears just two things: A cloth cover for the top of the head and a piece of cloth placed between the legs and around the waist. A mother loosens or removes clothing from the upper part of her body. She then holds the baby up high on her chest. Pieces of cloth connect the mother with her baby.

The baby can be breastfed in this position. Mother and baby could even sleep together, although they should not lie flat. Other caregivers also can get involved. Fathers and friends may take turns holding the baby in the position.

Kangaroo Mother Care was developed about twenty-five years ago in Bogotá, Colombia. But it is now used in as many as twenty-five developing countries. Some doctors in wealthy countries also support its use.

Last week, the British Medical Journal published a report on Kangaroo Mother Care. Juan Gabriel Ruiz-Palaez of Javeriana University in Bogota was the lead writer. His team examined the effect of K.M.C. on low weight babies. They wrote that it is as effective as an incubator treatment for many such babies. They said the method effectively turns the mother or caregiver into a human incubator.

The report says K.M.C. can begin as soon as a baby no longer needs continual support from intensive care equipment. It says babies who received the treatment generally had shorter hospital stays. They also had milder infections and better breastfeeding rates.

Doctor Ruiz-Palaez says the low cost of K.M.C. makes it very appealing to developing countries. He says wealthy nations also should make it part of normal care for small babies. He says the treatment also helps mothers form emotional ties to their newborns.

Elise Margosis agrees. She says it was hard having to wait so long to hold her baby. She says that when she finally got Gabriel on her chest, she knew it was the best thing for him.

But Elise has new difficulties holding on to her now healthy baby boy. At twenty months old Gabriel now weighs more than twelve kilograms and is a very active little person.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson, George Grow, and Caty Weaver. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. And, our engineer was Dwayne Collins. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.