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UN: Investigations Continue On Depleted Uranium

  • Kevin Foley

A report on more developments in the ongoing story on depleted uranium munitions in the Balkans tops the RFE/RL Health Report this week. In addition, and a computer-based program that aims to help international journalists cover the story of HIV and AIDS.

Washington, 25 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week that it has sent an expert mission to Kosovo to prepare for a more thorough investigation of environmental concerns linked to NATO's use of depleted uranium (DU) munitions in the Kosovo conflict.

The WHO experts will work with the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK). The WHO says the experts will collect information on the possible exposure of Kosovar Albanians and Serbs who may have been exposed to DU munitions. The WHO mission will also look at data on new cases of cancer and leukemia, and other conditions, in the local population that might be linked to DU exposure or exposure to other environmental hazards.

The WHO says the expert mission's report will enable UNMIK what sorts of actions might be necessary to protect people from possible environmental hazards.

Washington, 25 January (RFE/RL) -- An editorial in the January 20 edition of the "British Medical Journal," says that a half century of studies on the subject of uranium exposure provide little evidence to support a link to cancer.

The author, Melissa McDiarmid says DU "provides a common thread that links concerns about leukemia and other health effects in peacekeeping forces returned from the Balkans and worries about the environmental impact of debris from weapons in this war-weary segment of Europe." McDiarmid is professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

She reviewed studies done over the past 50 years on health effects associated with exposure to uranium, in both military and civilian settings. McDiarmid writes that, "we know quite a lot about the health effects of depleted uranium." And she cites several studies which found no connection between exposure to uranium and adverse health consequences.

McDiarmid says concerns about the link between cancer and DU munitions are understandable, but she also writes that, "the argument for uranium being the cause of leukemia in peacekeeping forces is thin."

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The United States government's biggest international radio broadcaster -- the Voice of America (VOA) -- is enlisting computers for the international effort to stop the spread of AIDS and the infection that precedes it.

Specifically, the VOA has developed a computer-based program for journalists to use in health news reporting about the Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Greg Pirio, the VOA's director of development, says this educational approach is novel. He said:

"We think it's the first of its kind for any sort of journalism education in the world."

Pirio told RFE/RL that the program uses computer technology to provide both experienced journalists and students with a number of tools to help them report effectively on HIV/AIDS.

He said the radio broadcaster has developed the program in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development and two United Nations' agencies -- the Pan American Health Organization and the UNAIDS Program.

Pirio said VOA has produced a disk that can be inserted into a personal computer. The disk contains a wealth of information on HIV/AIDS presented in a format that journalists would be comfortable using.

For example, Pirio said the disk not only has a reference library, it contains mock press conferences and interviews to help train health reporters. The journalist could work at his or her own pace, Pirio said, adding that the material could also be presented to groups in a classroom setting.

Pirio said the program provides journalists with "all kinds of ideas" for reporting on HIV/AIDS. He noted that surveys taken by the UN's World Health Organization show that people rely heavily on the news media for information on health issues. He said the compact disk, or CD, aims to help journalists fill that need.

HIV attacks the body's natural defense systems that protect against disease. The infection is spread through contact with contaminated body fluids such as blood and semen. Unprotected sex with an infected person or sharing hypodermic needles used by an infected person are the most common sources of the virus. There is no vaccine against HIV. It has been demonstrated that people with HIV can survive for years without developing AIDS, but AIDS is the end result of an HIV infection. AIDS makes the body vulnerable to several illnesses, including cancer and pneumonia. AIDS is fatal and there is no known cure.

The UN says an estimated 23 million men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV. Pirio said the VOA's computer-based program is now being tested in an English-language version by journalists in the Caribbean. However, he said one of the goals of the VOA is to develop a disk in Spanish and Portuguese for use in Africa.

He said the disk was chosen as the medium because there are enough personal computers in use, even in the poorest nations, to make the program practical. Pirio said the disk can be easily updated with new information, and, it is cheap to reproduce and distribute. The cost of making a copy is less than one dollar.

Pirio said the VOA would like to see the disk refined and ready for use in Africa in about five months. He said it has the potential for worldwide use in many languages. The VOA broadcasts in English and 50 other languages and reports that it has 91 million listeners. Pirio also said the concept of using the computer disk could be applied to teaching other subjects, such as economics or conflict resolution. Pirio said the VOA regards the program as a singular achievement.

He added that the VOA hopes that others will build on the VOA's efforts and apply the technology to other subjects and regions of the world.

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