Broadcast: June 17, 2003
I’m Sarah Long with Bob Doughty, and this is the VOA Special English program, SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.
This week -- the World Health Organization gets new powers to act quickly against threats to international public health ... scientists create a material that might let you climb walls like Spider-Man someday ... and, advice about how to avoid travelers' blood clots.
The World Health Organization no longer has to wait for a government to officially announce a health problem. New rules expand the ability of the W-H-O to intervene when a country faces a crisis that might spread. The agency can now use unofficial reports, such as news stories, to confirm an outbreak of disease.
If necessary, the rules permit the W-H-O to send teams to investigate how severe the situation is. The teams could also make sure a country has done enough to control it.
In addition, the new rules give the W-H-O the power to declare international health threats in the future, as it did with SARS. The health agency also wants an improved system of communication with officials in each country.
All one-hundred-ninety-two member states of the W-H-O approved the new rules in a resolution during a meeting in Geneva last month. The World Health Organization is part of the United Nations.
The resolution is part of an effort to rewrite the International Health Regulations. These were first published in nineteen-sixty-nine. The member states also urged the W-H-O to use the experiences and knowledge gained from the SARS crisis when it changes those rules.
The W-H-O recognized the need for stronger international health rules after the discovery of severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS began in southern China late last year. But the Chinese government did not officially confirm it until February. That gave the lung infection time to spread while it went unreported.
As of last week, at least seven-hundred-eighty-nine people had died from SARS. More than eight-thousand-four-hundred had become infected. About sixty percent of all the victims have been in mainland China.
The World Health Organization will now be able to intervene even when a country denies it has a health problem.
For years, health experts have called the legal structure that governs W-H-O action outdated and ineffective. The existing rules permitted the agency to collect information about diseases only after a government officially announced a crisis -- not before then.
Also, the regulations currently require W-H-O members to report only three diseases. These are cholera, plague and yellow fever.
The W-H-O is expected to complete reforms to the International Health Regulations in two-thousand-five. The U-N health agency will not gain any ability to punish a country that disobeys the new rules. Still, the SARS crisis has shown that the W-H-O can take steps on its own to contain the spread of a disease. For example, the agency made the decision to warn people not to travel to places affected by SARS.
Last Thursday, in Beijing, high-level Chinese and W-H-O officials held their first joint news conference since the SARS outbreak began. Doctor David Heymann of the W-H-O said "excellent" measures were now in place to control and prevent SARS.
This week the W-H-O holds a Global Conference on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Experts and public health officials are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
You are listening to the VOA Special English program Science in the News. I'm Sarah Long with Bob Doughty in Washington.
A small lizard called a gecko has a wonderful ability. It can walk on all kinds of surfaces. It can even walk upside down.
The feet of these small reptiles can stick to almost anything, wet or dry. They stick to surfaces even when there is no air. This means the force of air pressure, or suction, is not involved. Scientists are interested in the ability of the gecko and want to copy it. Now it seems they have.
British and Russian researchers have developed a piece of sticky material that copies the ability of the gecko lizard. The first piece of this “gecko tape” is very small -- only one centimeter by one centimeter. However, a lot of research led to this new material.
In two-thousand, researchers led by a professor at the University of California at Berkeley announced why gecko feet are so sticky. The answer surprised even expert engineers.
The team found that the only explanation could be one suggested more than thirty years earlier. The team discovered work done by a German researcher in the nineteen-sixties. Uwe Hiller thought that a kind of atomic energy known as van der Waals forces was responsible. This kind of energy holds water molecules together. The team confirmed Hiller’s theory.
Geckos have extremely small hairs -- called setae [see-tee] -- on the bottoms of their feet. Each hair ends in even smaller hairs. The team found that each hair produces a weak force to stick to a surface.
The new research built on that discovery and took place at the University of Manchester, in England. It also involved scientists from the Institute for Microelectronics Technology in Russia. The publication Nature Materials published the research.
The team created material covered with millions of tiny hairs made of plastic. The hairs are two-thousandths of a millimeter high. The researchers say the material has the same qualities as gecko feet.
There is a problem, though. The tape can reattach only a few times before it loses its strength.
Professor Robert Full led the Berkeley team that made the earlier discovery. He calls the new development very exciting. He says the uses for gecko tape are nearly unlimited. One possible use is to move computer parts in airless environments.
Of course, it is not just the industrial uses that have caught the imagination of many people. Many hope to be able to walk on walls like the movie and comic book hero Spider-man.
Professor Andre Geim is the director of the Manchester Center for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology, where the gecko tape was made. Professor Geim says the researchers had the idea to produce a large enough amount to permit a student to hang out of a window. But he said it would cost too much money and not have scientific value.
So the researchers limited themselves to a demonstration. They hung a fifteen-centimeter-high toy Spider-Man from a glass surface.
So, while the gecko may have lost its mystery, the lizard is not about to share its power with anyone for now.
People who sit for hours on long trips should know about a condition called deep vein thrombosis. A thrombosis is a blood clot, a situation where some blood thickens and blocks the flow. Clots develop deep inside the legs when blood cannot move easily back to the heart. Blood clots can kill if they move to the heart and lungs.
Doctors say some people have an increased risk of clots. These include people who have had clots in the past, as well as pregnant women and those who take birth control pills. People who are overweight and those with heart disease or cancer also may have a greater risk. Others include people being treated with estrogen, and those who have had a recent operation.
Experts say travelers should drink plenty of water -- not liquids that contain alcohol or caffeine. Another thing to do is to increase the blood flow to the legs. This could mean wearing support stockings or taking an aspirin a few hours before the trip. Also, people should not sit for a long time with their knees pressed back against their seat. Walk around every hour or so. Or at least make sure to move the feet and legs.
Doctors say anyone who has pain, swelling or red skin on a leg during or after a long trip may have a blood clot. Signs that a clot may have already reached the lungs include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing and a fast heart rate. In many cases, the condition can be treated with drugs that thin the blood and prevent clots from moving through the body.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jill Moss, Mario Ritter and Nancy Steinbach. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty with Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.