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6 Surprisingly Fascinating Stockpiles

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Various companies, countries, and organizations stockpile resources around the world. From medicine to cheese to diamonds, stockpiles can save the day...or be used to manipulate market prices. Here are six examples of the coolest stockpiles out there.

1. The Cholera Vaccine Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: 2 million doses of oral cholera vaccine. The vaccine requires two rounds of dosing—so the 2 million doses can be given to 1 million people. Each dose has a 30-month shelf life.

What it's been used for: Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 140,000 people in South Sudan were being given the vaccine, marking the first use of this stockpile. The South Sudanese recipients are living in temporary camps during ongoing fighting, and the conditions in the camps put them at high risk for a cholera outbreak. It's impossible to know whether a cholera outbreak would have occurred without vaccination, but it's clear that for those 140,000 people, one deadly risk has been avoided. The vaccine can also be flown in quickly at the beginning of an outbreak to prevent the spread of cholera.

Where the stockpile is: Hyderabad, India, where the vaccine is manufactured. You can read more about this stockpile in a Q&A from earlier this week.

Here's a photo from Twitter celebrating the completion of the first round of vaccination delivery:

Bonus points: The WHO also maintains similar stockpiles of yellow fever and meningitis vaccines.

2. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS)

What's in the stockpile: A variety of medicines and medical supplies to be used in public health emergencies within the U.S. The CDC describes the stockpile as containing "antibiotics, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, life-support medications, IV administration, airway maintenance supplies, and medical/surgical items." It's huge, and it's designed to cope with multiple massive emergencies simultaneously.

What it's been used for: 11 million regimes of antiviral medications, plus 39 million "respiratory protection devices" (masks, respirators, etc.), were deployed from the SNS in 2009 during the H1N1 influenza pandemic. These supplies were sent to affected states based on population. SNS supplies were also deployed on 9/11, during the subsequent anthrax attacks, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Where the stockpile is: In "strategic locations" around the U.S. (in other words, it's classified.) The coolest feature of the SNS is the dozen "12-hour push packages," each a 50-ton mega-medicine package than can be deployed by air or ground to major cities in the U.S. within 12 hours after the order is given. (After 9/11, it took seven hours for a push package to arrive onsite.)

For more, consult this extensive document explaining the program. It's truly impressive.

3. Europe's Cotton Stockpile

"King Cotton" cotton plantation. Image courtesy Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.

Not every stockpile is medical—and some are historical. This one dates back to the Civil War.

What was in the stockpile: In 1858, James Henry Hammond of South Carolina gave his famous "King Cotton" speech, arguing in part:

"What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?... England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King."

The idea was that if southern American states stopped exporting cotton, England would be forced to intervene in the American Civil War, backing the Confederacy. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the English had a stockpile of cotton.

What it was used for: Stabilizing the international cotton market during the American Civil War. Because cotton export volume had been so high in the 1850s, England and various European countries were sitting on comfy stockpiles of cotton. When the southern cotton growers stopped exports (and a Union blockade ultimately prevented them), the value of the cotton soared, and cotton production in India and Egypt was increased.

Where the stockpile was: England and various European countries.

4. Government Cheese

What was in the stockpile: In the 1980s the USDA found itself with an abundance of cheese and butter, purchased from US dairy producers who couldn't sell all of it on the open market. This practice of buying up surplus dairy products dated to the Great Depression, when it began as a way to maintain the dairy industry.

What it was used for: In December of 1981, President Reagan signed a measure that would release 30 million pounds from the cheese stockpile. In 1983, the Temporary Emergency Food Distribution Program was formed to distribute the cheese, in large unsliced blocks. This is where the term "Government Cheese" comes from—it was literally cheese given to the underprivileged to supplement their diets. There's even a ChowHound thread in which former eaters of Government Cheese reminisce about how good it was in grilled cheese sandwiches.

Where the stockpile was: Caves in Missouri. (Yes, really.) The New York Times reported that by 1983 the value of the national cheese-and-butter stockpile was over $4 billion.

5. The Diamond Stockpile

What's in the stockpile: Starting in the 1880s, Cecil Rhodes, then chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, bought up all the diamond mines he could. De Beers then proceeded to stockpile rough (uncut) diamonds.

What it's been used for: Convincing people that diamonds are more rare than they really are. While diamonds aren't going to turn up in your backyard, there are many diamond mines in the world. But the diamond industry has used stockpiling and limited releases to create artificial scarcity, which drives up prices. In 2000, De Beers reduced the size of its diamond stockpile (from an estimated $3.9 billion to $2.5 billion) after other companies began to dump diamonds in the market. Over a decade later, the stockpiling continued as various companies regulated the flow of diamonds in order to keep prices high.

Where the stockpile is: We don't know. A Washington Post article simply stated: "basement vaults," which sounds about right.

6. The U.N.'s Humanitarian Response Depots

What's in the stockpile: Five United Nations Humanitarian Response Depots (UNHRD) with emergency supplies for use in response to disasters. Managed by the World Food Programme (WFP), the depots contain all manner of food and survival gear. You can actually run a report to see what's currently in the stockpile.

What it's been used for: The depots deploy supplies frequently, as detailed in a series of weekly reports. In a memorable recent example, during Typhoon Haiyan, UNHRD shipped food and equipment to the Philippines. The WFP wrote, "In the first 24 hours, approximately 42 metric tons (mt) of High Energy Biscuits (HEBs) and emergency IT equipment were called forward to be packed up and ready for shipment from the Dubai facilities."

Where the stockpile is: There are six "strategically placed hubs" around the world, positioned near disaster-prone areas and near shipping facilities. The current hubs are located in Ghana, UAE, Malaysia, Panama, Spain, and Italy. They are designed to deliver supplies to disaster areas within 24 to 48 hours.

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YouTube / thelostdisney
5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
YouTube / thelostdisney
YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

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YouTube / ONE
How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
YouTube / ONE
YouTube / ONE

This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.

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