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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - UN Campaigns to End a Pregnancy-Related Disorder / 'Out of Africa' Theory Gets New Support / US Officials Deal with a Sickness Spread by Unusual Pets - 2003-06-23

Broadcast: June 24, 2003



I’m Sarah Long with Bob Doughty, and this is the VOA Special English program, SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.


This week -- a new report looks at the suffering of African women with a disability related to pregnancy .... Scientists find what they say is the strongest evidence yet to support the theory that all humans developed in Africa ... And, American officials deal with a sickness linked to some unusual pet animals.



The United Nations has launched a campaign to prevent and treat a condition that may result from a difficult childbirth. Women can develop what is called an obstetric fistula. An abnormal hole forms inside the body and lets waste material pass through. The woman then loses normal control over the expulsion of her waste.

Women in poor countries often have no way to receive the simple operation to repair a fistula. In places with good health care, women who have a difficult labor may give birth by Cesarean section. The baby is lifted out through a cut made in the stomach area of the mother.

Experts say the problem of fistulas appears to be especially common in Africa.


Last week, the U-N Population Fund released a report based on findings in nine African countries south of the Sahara Desert. Current estimates are that two-million women around the world live with fistulas. This is based on the number of women who seek treatment in medical centers. But the new report says this estimate is too low. It says Nigeria alone could have as many as one-million cases.

The condition is terrible not just physically, but also emotionally. A fistula usually develops because of difficulties giving birth. A woman may not have a big enough pelvis to let the baby pass through. The woman may be in labor for several days. When the baby is finally born, it is usually dead.

The U-N agency says many women who develop fistulas are forced out of their homes. Their husbands leave them. Even some health workers consider them "unclean."


The report says women with fistulas in sub-Saharan Africa are usually under the age of twenty. Some are as young as thirteen. The women are usually poor and cannot read or write.

The report says there is a need to train more local doctors to do fistula operations. Currently many women have to depend on doctors who travel from one place to another. Also, the U-N Population Fund report says most women do not even know this treatment exists.

The agency is raising money to support the treatment centers in sub-Saharan Africa and to start new ones.


It is possible to repair the damage caused by a fistula. The Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has treated more than twenty-thousand women in the past thirty years. The hospital says it has successfully repaired fistulas ninety-three percent of the time.

However, experts say many women later find it hard to continue to live in their communities. Other people may avoid them and no longer treat them as members of the community.

The U-N Population Fund says fistulas can result not just from difficult births. They can also result from unsafe attempts to end an unwanted pregnancy, and from traditional female genital cutting.

Doctor Ann Ward is a doctor in southeastern Nigeria. She says her most important job is to tell women with fistulas that they are not bad people.


Health experts say obstetric fistulas are almost always preventable. They say one way is to make sure girls do not get married and have children until they are completely grown. They say young women should also wait long enough between each baby for their bodies to heal completely.

Doctors say it is important for women to see a health care worker before their baby is born, to plan for any possible problems.


You are listening to the VOA Special English program Science in the News. I'm Sarah Long with Bob Doughty in Washington.


Scientists believe they have found the direct ancestor of modern humans. The evidence is in the form of three skulls found in Ethiopia. A team that included scientists from Ethiopia, the United States and Japan found the head bones in nineteen-ninety-seven. The bones were buried in volcanic ash in the Middle Awash area, near the village of Herto, more than two-hundred kilometers from Addis Ababa.

It took the researchers years to clean and study the bones and the other evidence surrounding them. This evidence included more than six-hundred stone tools and animal bones.

Tests showed that the bones are between one-hundred-fifty-four-thousand and one-hundred-sixty-thousand years old. That is forty-five-thousand years older than the oldest human bones ever found before.

Scientists say the skulls provide new information about a time that has been mostly unknown because of a lack of fossil remains. It is the time period in which scientists believe modern human beings first developed.


The scientists who found the skulls reported about the fossils in the publication Nature. Tim White from the University of California at Berkeley led the team.

The head bones of two adults and a child look very similar to those of people today. But they had heavier brow ridge bones above their eyes. And they had more widely spaced eyes and larger heads than modern humans.

The researchers say these are the remains of early humans who represent the link immediately before modern people. They say the bones are the strongest evidence yet to support the idea that human beings first appeared in Africa.


Scientists call this the “Out of Africa” theory. It states that modern humans developed in Africa and then moved to Asia, Europe and other parts of the world. This scientific idea rejects another theory known as the multiregional hypothesis. This is the idea that humans developed in different parts of the world at around the same time. This theory includes the ancient Neanderthals in Europe as part of human development.

The Out of Africa theory, however, rejects the idea that the Neanderthals had anything to do with the development of human beings. Neanderthals disappeared around thirty-thousand years ago.


Some scientists, however, say the discovery of the fossils in Ethiopia does not prove anything about Neanderthals and human development. They say the fossils do not settle the scientific disagreement between the two theories. The only way to do that, they say, is to find more fossils in Africa that date from the same time period.



American officials have been working to stop the spread of a disease linked to some animals kept as house pets. This is the first time monkeypox has been seen in the United States.

Monkeypox is generally found in western and central Africa. There, the virus kills from one to ten percent of the people it infects. As of last week, officials in the United States had reports from several states of more than ninety suspected cases. Some cases had been confirmed. But no one had died.

The disease starts with a high body temperature, aches, sweating and a cough. Small red bumps appear on the body. After a few days, these sores dry up and disappear. Monkeypox is caused by a virus related to the one that causes smallpox. But monkeypox is less severe.

The vaccine that prevents smallpox can protect against monkeypox as well. So public health officials have said that some people, including pet owners and those investigating the disease, should get the vaccine.


In Africa, squirrels carry the virus. Other animals that can carry it include rabbits, apes and monkeys. It is called "monkeypox" because scientists first discovered it in laboratory monkeys in nineteen-fifty-eight. People can sometimes get monkeypox from other people. But the virus is more commonly spread by handling infected animals.

Experts believe the virus came to the United States from Africa in a Gambian giant rat and spread to prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs are not dogs but a kind of rodent.

Both animals are sold as pets. The experts are trying to find all the people who bought infected prairie dogs.

As of now, the government has banned the sale of prairie dogs and the import of rodents from Africa. These include squirrels, mice, rats and porcupines.



Science in the News was written by Karen Leggett and Nancy Steinbach. Our producer was Cynthia Kirk. This is Bob Doughty.


And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.