Health Highlights: Aug. 18, 2007
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:
New Mexico Medicinal Marijuana Law Put on Hold
Having no guarantee of protection against federal prosecution, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson Friday stopped short of ordering implementation of a state-run production and distribution system for marijuana to be used for medical purposes, the Associated Press reports.
But Richardson did order the state Health Department to go ahead with planning the operations of the program, which includes growing and distributing the drug.
So far, Congressional efforts to keep federal law enforcement officials from prosecuting New Mexico health workers have failed. State Attorney General Gary King warned Friday that New Mexico health department employees could face federal prosecution for implementing the law, which became effective in July, the A.P. reports.
State health officials want to make sure that the cannabis meets the standards for medical treatment. Marijuana is often used by those suffering from diseases that cause pain, and also by those whose treatment brings about nausea and depression.
The New Mexico law specifically mentions approved marijuana use for cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and HIV-AIDS, and also by some patients in hospice care. "The long-term goal is that the patients will have a safe, secure supply that doesn't mean drug dealers, that doesn't mean growing their own," Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, told the A.P. in July.
But medicinal marijuana use is illegal under federal law, and so far, no acceptable remedy has been found to keep U.S. agents from raiding New Mexico-run marijuana farms and arresting state employees.
FDA Cancels Plans to Close More Than Half Its Field Labs
It could have a been a response to the Bob Dylan song, "The Times They are A-Changin'."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has canceled plans to close more than half its field laboratories because its watchdog role over imported food has increased greatly in recent months.
Ironically, the lab reduction was originally planned to streamline the agency's food testing program, the Associated Press reports.
But a spate of incidents during the spring and summer involving possible contamination of imported ingestible items ranging from fish to toothpaste has caused the regulatory agency to put its reduction plans on hold.
A presidential panel is developing recommendations on how the FDA and other U.S. agencies can better guarantee the safety of imported foods and other items, The A.P. reports. A Congressional subcommittee is also looking into the impact the field laboratory closings would have, the wire service says.
Genetic Test Spots Patients at Risk From Viral Infections
A genetic method of identifying patients most likely to develop life-threatening complications from SARS, bird flu and other dangerous viral infections has been discovered by Canadian researchers.
They analyzed blood samples from 40 people infected with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) during the 2003 outbreak in Toronto. They found that patients with one kind of interferon gene-expression pattern recovered quickly, while those with another pattern became seriously ill or died, the Toronto Star reported.
Interferons -- proteins produced by white blood cells -- are the body's first-line defense against viruses. SARS patients with abnormal interferon patterns didn't produce enough antibodies to fight the virus, the study found. It was published Thursday in the Journal of Virology.
The findings provide new insight into how the immune system responds to SARS and could help doctors identify which patients with severe viral infections require specialized treatments, the Star reported.
Depression Over-Diagnosed, Psychiatrist Says
Many people diagnosed with depression are actually just unhappy, says an Australian psychiatrist who contends that the clinical threshold for depression is too low, BBC News reported.
Professor Gordon Parker of the University of New South Wales wrote in the British Medical Journal that almost all people experience symptoms such as "feeling sad, blue or down in the dumps" at some time in their lives. However, that's not the same as clinical depression.
He conducted a 15-year study of 242 teachers and found that more than 75 percent of them met the current criteria for depression. Parker described depression as a "catch-all" diagnosis driven by clever marketing, BBC News reported.
"Over the last 30 years the formal definitions for defining clinical depression have expanded into the territory of normal depression, and the real risk is that the milder, more common experiences risk being pathologised," Parker wrote.
However, the same issue of the British Medical Journal featured an article by another psychiatrist who contradicted Parker's opinion. Increased diagnosis of depression has helped prevent suicides and reduced the stigma of mental illness, Professor Ian Hickie wrote.
Employer-Sponsored Health Premiums Jump
Between 2000 and 2005, the average annual premium for employer-sponsored family health coverage increased from $6,772 to $10,728, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
The average annual cost for single-person coverage increased from $2,655 to $3,991 during the same period.
Workers paid $971 more for family coverage in 2005 than they did in 2000 ($2,585 vs. $1,614). Single-person annual premiums increased an average of $273.
Employers paid an average of $2,985 more for each family plan, from $5,158 in 2000 to $8,143 in 2005, a 58 percent increase. Each single plan cost employers $1,063 more in 2005, a 48 percent increase.
New York City had the highest average overall cost for a family plan premium in 2005 ($11,819), while Los Angeles had the lowest premium ($10,122).
Delayed Umbilical Cord Clamping Better for Babies: Expert
Doctors and midwives should delay clamping the umbilical cord for three minutes after birth to reduce the risk of anemia in newborns, says an article in the British Medical Journal.
Dr. Andrew Weeks, an obstetrics lecturer at Liverpool University in the U.K., said delayed clamping of the umbilical cord sends oxygen-rich blood to the newborn's lungs until breathing is fully established, and increases iron levels, Agence France-Presse reported.
Delayed clamping would especially benefit premature babies and babies delivered by Caesarean section, Weeks said.
He noted that there is considerable evidence that early cord clamping doesn't benefit mothers or babies, AFP reported.
"Both the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics have dropped (early clamping) from their guidelines," Weeks said. "It is time for others to follow their lead and find practical ways of incorporating delayed cord clamping into delivery routines."
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