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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Why So Many Hurricanes? / New Publication Policy Aims to Make All Drug Studies Public / Stronger Warnings Urged for Depression Drugs - 2004-09-27


Broadcast: September 28, 2004

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VOICE ONE:

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. This week: the busy hurricane season in the Atlantic ...

VOICE ONE:

A new publishing policy aims to make all drug studies known to the public ...

VOICE TWO:

And, calls for stronger warnings about the risk to children from drugs that treat depression.

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VOICE ONE:

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean extends, officially, from June first to November thirtieth. Weather scientists expected an active season of ocean storms this year. But a lot have expressed surprise at just how active this season has been already.

The agency known as NOAA [NO-uh] reported that the number of named tropical storms in the Atlantic set a record in August. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States. Eight storms were strong enough to earn a name in August. These started with Alex, the first major storm of the season. Four of the eight storms developed into hurricanes. This means they had winds of at least one hundred nineteen kilometers an hour.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, says the record before was seven. That was in nineteen thirty-three and nineteen ninety-five. The hurricane center says the normal number of storms in a season through the end of August is four.

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Major ocean storms in the northern part of the world usually develop in late summer or autumn over waters near the Equator. Weather movements off the coast of North Africa help to produce the storms. Warm ocean waters feed the storms which gives them energy. The storms gather strength as they move west toward the Caribbean Sea and North America. The word hurricane comes from the native Caribbean language Taino.

Such storms are called hurricanes if they happen in the Atlantic or in parts of the Pacific Ocean east of the international dateline. They are called typhoons in parts of the Pacific west of the dateline. And they are called cyclones in the Southwest Pacific and in the Indian Ocean.

VOICE ONE:

The Saffir-Simpson scale measures hurricanes by their intensity based on wind speed. The scale is listed in categories. A category one storm has winds of up to about one hundred fifty kilometers an hour. Experts say this storm might damage trees and light structures like mobile homes.

Top winds of a category two hurricane can reach close to one hundred eighty kilometers an hour. These storms are often strong enough to break windows or take the top off a house.

Categories three and four represent winds between about one hundred eighty and two hundred fifty kilometers an hour. Hurricane Ivan was a category four storm. It killed at least one hundred ten people on Caribbean islands and in the United States. It caused thousands of millions of dollars in damage.

The highest level on the Saffir-Simpson scale is a category five storm. This is any storm with a wind speed greater than two hundred forty-nine kilometers an hour.

However, a storm does not have to reach hurricane strength to cause loss of life. In fact the deadliest storm so far this year was Tropical Storm Jeanne. More than one thousand five hundred people were killed when it tore across Haiti last week. The storm caused severe floods and landslides in areas cleared of forests.

Tropical Storm Jeanne later strengthened into a hurricane. This past weekend it struck the Atlantic coast of Florida, killing several people. It caused more damage along an area hit by Hurricane Frances three weeks earlier.

Jeanne was the fourth hurricane to hit Florida in the past six weeks.

VOICE TWO:

Many people believe that all these storms must have something to do with human activities and climate change. But scientists have no simple answers. Some say warmer ocean temperatures could produce storms of greater intensity. But they say this would not necessarily mean a greater number of storms. Others say there is no proof of a connection between global warming and severe weather. Still others note that averages can hide the fact that some years just have more storms than others.

There are cycles of hurricane activity in the Atlantic that last at least twenty years. These are periods of generally above-normal or below-normal activity. NOAA says tropical storm activity in the Atlantic has been "considerably above normal" since nineteen ninety-five. The last above-normal years were in the nineteen fifties and sixties.

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VOICE ONE:

Drug companies are often accused of only publishing studies that make their medicines look good. That means the public may never know about tests that found a drug to be useless or perhaps even dangerous. This is known as selective reporting. Critics say this kind of reporting goes against the interests of public health.

As a result, a group of leading medical editors announced a new policy this month. They say researchers must publicly list all tests if they want any of them published. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors says all eleven of its member journals will follow this policy.

These include The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet. Editors for the journals say that beginning next July, they will no longer publish results from tests that have not been registered in a public database. They say that honest reporting begins with announcing the existence of all experiments.

The announcement came as the United States Congress began hearings on the issue. Lawmakers are considering measures that would require drug companies to publicly list their tests, called trials. Companies could also be required to publish their results on a government Web site.

VOICE TWO:

Such possible measures led the drug industry to develop a plan of its own. A trade group said it will create a database for its members to list their test results if they choose. Some drug makers say they oppose publishing details of their experiments because competitors could learn trade secrets.

In any case, the medical journal editors say the plan by the drug industry is not enough. They say doctors and patients need complete information to make informed decisions about the use of medicines.

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VOICE ONE:

Selective reporting of drug tests may also lead to a change by the United States Food and Drug Administration. An advisory committee says anti-depression medicines should come with the strongest possible warnings to doctors and patients. Experts say that in some cases, these anti-depressants may lead children and young adults to want to kill themselves. The F.D.A. is considering the recommendations from its Public Health Advisory Committee.

The committee held a series of public hearings in which past drug tests were discussed. Drug companies that supported the tests had hidden some of the results for years. Family members of children who killed themselves while on the medicines also spoke at the hearings.

VOICE TWO:

But critics say the proposals are too little and too late. The F.D.A. reported last October about the suicidal risks among some children taking antidepressant medicines. Six months later, the agency told drug companies to place warnings on ten drugs. Critics noted that British health officials had advised doctors late last year to avoid the use of most kinds of antidepressants in children.

A study by Medco Health Solutions, however, suggests that the concerns have had an effect in the United States. The study shows that number of children on antidepressants dropped eighteen percent during the first three months of this year.

VOICE ONE:

Our program was written by Caty Weaver and Jill Moss. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. To send us e-mail, write to special@voanews.com. This is Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Phoebe Zimmermann. Next week, learn about findings that air pollution can reduce lung development in children. A study in California found that children in areas with dirty air were more likely to grow up with weak lungs, a risk for early death. Also, we'll report on a legal settlement by the DuPont Company. The case involves the possible health risks from a chemical used to make Teflon products. Those stories, and more, next week on SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English..

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