Health Highlights: Feb. 17, 2008
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:
Changes in Small Sea Snail May Interrupt Ocean Food Supply, Scientist Warns
In the last century, coal miners brought canaries with them into the mine, because the birds were sentries for any change in the air supply. If the canary keeled over, the humans knew they had to get to the surface.
The new age "canaries" are sea snails called pteropods, the food supply for a great many sea species. These small creatures are undergoing physiological changes that may spell future catastrophe, according to a molecular ecologist who gave her report over the weekend at a session during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
Gretchen Hofmann, associate professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, collected pteropods in Antarctica and noticed changes in their physical makeup. This may be caused by an increasingly acidic ocean because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, she said in a university news release.
"They (the pteropods) are harbingers of change," she said. "It's possible by 2050 they may not be able to make a shell anymore. If we lose these organisms, the impact on the food chain will be catastrophic."
The acidity makes the animals less able to withstand warmer waters, and they are smaller now, she added. "These observations suggest that warming and acidifying seas will be a complex environment for future marine organisms," Hofmann said in the news release.
Tiny Amounts of Estrogen May be Serious Threat to Fish Population
Some ecosystems near large population centers can be quite fragile, and a study presented over the weekend demonstrated this by using an unlikely substance -- estrogen.
Scientists from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) found that extremely tiny amounts of synthetic estrogen -- the type found in birth control pills -- introduced from municipal wastewater plants into lakes and rivers downstream can cause a decline (and even the elimination) of entire populations of some species of fish.
According to a NSERC news release, the study was presented at a session of the Association for the Advancement of Science's annual conference in Boston Feb. 16. Researchers said they added tiny amounts per trillion to a Canadian lake region in a re-creation of what may normally be found in a municipal wastewater plant.
Results of the seven-year study were dramatic. Estrogen exposure led to the near extinction of the lake's fathead minnow population, and the population of larger fish such as pearl dace and lake trout declined.
"Generally, the smaller the fish, the more vulnerable they are to estrogen," said lead researcher Dr. Karen Kidd, a biology professor at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John). "What we demonstrated is that estrogen can wipe out entire populations of small fish, a key food source for larger fish whose survival could in turn be threatened over the longer term," she added in her statement.
The researchers recommended that estrogen be removed from municipal water supplies during the treatment process, just as other contaminants are removed.
Chinese Plant That Made Suspended Blood Thinner Not Licensed for Pharmaceutical Manufacturing
The Chinese manufacturing plant that supplies a great amount of the active ingredient in a blood thinner associated with four deaths in the United states isn't even certified by its own government to make drugs and other pharmaceutical products, the New York Times reports.
This revelation comes only a few days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted it violated its own policy by not having inspected the plant before allowing pharmaceutical company Baxter International, which uses ingredients from the Chinese plant, to market the blood thinner heparin in the United States, the Times said.
On Feb. 11, Baxter International suspended sales multi-dose vials of heparin after disclosing that 4 deaths and 350 complications resulted from use of heparin. A spokesman for China's State Food and Drug Administration told the newspaper Friday that the plant in question was not a drug manufacturer but "a producer of chemical ingredients" and not licensed to make pharmaceutical products.
When will the FDA get around to inspecting the Chinese plant? Soon, the Times reports agency spokeswoman Karen Riley as saying. She didn't elaborate, but earlier in the week called the FDA's failure to inspect the plant a "glitch", the newspaper said.
Meta-Study: Hispanics Have More Difficulty Controlling Glucose Levels
Confirming earlier studies, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. have found that Hispanics have a measurably more difficult time controlling their blood sugar.
Maintaining proper amounts of blood sugar (glucose) is a key element in controlling type 2 diabetes, which is estimated to affect more than 20 million Americans.
The study, which was underwritten in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that Hispanic patients with diabetes have glucose levels about 0.5 percent higher than Caucasians, according to a Wake Forest news release.
The test used for the analysis was the A1C test, which measures hemoglobin linked with glucose over a two-to-three month time period. The higher the A1C values, the more difficult it is for diabetes patients to control their blood sugar, the researchers said.
The researchers began with 495 studies over a 13-year period and narrowed their focus to 11 studies that comprised results of A1C tests for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.
"The Hispanic population has a high prevalence of diabetes and higher A1C than non-Hispanic whites," said Julienne Kirk, associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest, and lead author of the study. "This further elucidates the health disparities that characterize the Hispanic population."
The results of the study are in the February issue of Diabetes Care.
555 Americans Killed in All-Terrain Vehicle Accidents in 2006
At least 555 people died in 2006 from accidents involving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Thursday.
More than 100 children were among the fatalities, the agency said. It expects the numbers to climb as additional data arrive from hospitals and coroners across the country, the Associated Press reported.
While groups representing consumers and parents have said for years that the vehicles are unsafe, the industry that makes ATVs cites driver error, the wire service reported.
"ATVs have never been shown to be an unsafe product, but there have been bad decisions made by people sitting on the seat," said a spokesman for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America.
In its annual analysis released Thursday, the CPSC said Pennsylvania has led the nation in ATV deaths since 1982, followed by California, West Virginia, Texas and Kentucky. At least one ATV fatality was reported in each of the 50 states.
In 2005, 666 confirmed ATV deaths were reported. And because the CPSC said it is still analyzing data for that year, the toll could rise to as high as 870, the AP reported.
On the day the report was released, the CPSC announced the recall of 95,000 Polaris-brand ATVs that had potentially defective control panels that could ignite, the wire service said.
Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. Births Are C-Sections: Report
Nearly one in three American women who gave birth in 2005 did so by Cesarean section, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality said Thursday in its latest News and Numbers report.
The ratio was about one in five in 1995, the agency said in a prepared statement.
The report also noted that:
- Some 1.3 million women had C-sections in 2005, a 38 percent jump over the 800,000 performed in 1995.
- Vaginal deliveries in hospitals fell from about 3 million in 1995 to 2.9 million in 2005.
- Hospitals charged a combined $21.3 billion for patient stays involving vaginal deliveries in 2005, compared to $17.5 billion for those involving C-sections.
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