Health Highlights: Dec. 5, 2007

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Rate of Fatal Methadone Overdoses Soars

The rate of fatal overdoses of methadone in the United States soared 390 percent to 3,849 cases in 2004 from 786 in 1999, the Justice Department said in a report released Wednesday.

Methadone, a painkilling medication that helps curtail heroin addiction, "is a safe and effective drug when used as prescribed," the department's National Intelligence Drug Center said. "However, patients who are prescribed methadone need to be monitored by a physician."

In addition to its painkilling properties, methadone suppresses the withdrawal symptoms of people addicted to heroin and other opiates, the Associated Press reported. The rise in the methadone fatality rate coincides with more doctors prescribing it to people in pain. The Justice Department report also noted a rising incidence of theft as methadone is shipped from manufacturers to distributors such as pharmacies and hospitals.

Most of the fatal methadone overdoses occurred among people who also drank alcohol and used other drugs, the report said. Often, cases involved legitimately prescribed methadone by people who weren't properly instructed on how to use the drug safely, the AP reported.

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Some U.S. Airports Offering Flu Shots Near Gates

Some major U.S. airports are offering busy travelers flu shots at kiosks and health stations in "airside" areas where passengers who have gone through security checkpoints wait for their flights, the Associated Press reported.

For a number of years, many U.S. airports have offered flu shots in public areas outside security checkpoints. But many passengers didn't use the service because they were worried about the risk of missing their flight if they had to wait to get a flu shot before they cleared the checkpoints.

Offering flu shots in airside areas is "a viable option ... especially for business travelers. They don't have time to go to the physician. This offers another option for the population to get their flu shots," Dr. Dominic Mack, chief medical officer of The AeroClinic, which has two flu shot kiosks at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, told the AP.

The gateside flu shot programs make sense as a public health measure, said Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, assistant professor of public health and medicine at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York.

"Anything that makes flu shots more accessible is a good thing. It's always helpful during normal times to try out new mechanisms [to vaccinate people]. This idea of offering vaccine in airports is actually an interesting and helpful step," Hupert told the AP.

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Vaccination Opponents Using Internet Social Sites to Promote Views

Opponents of vaccinations are using YouTube, FaceBook and other Internet social networks to promote their views that vaccines are dangerous, says a research letter published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Public health officials need to understand the impact these efforts can have on universal vaccination campaigns and find ways to counter this dangerous trend, said researchers from the University of Toronto and York University in Canada, the Canadian Press reported.

"This is their new strategy for communicating," said senior author Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine specialist and public health policy researcher. "These people believe their viewpoint is not being aired in public. They believe that they are being shut out of the discourse and they want to get their viewpoint out. And this is their way of creating commercials for their viewpoints."

Wilson said vaccination opponents are "putting a lot of effort" into using Internet social networks to promote their opinions, the CP reported.

"And other people ... just from the view counts and the ratings, are coming on and wanting to find out more about these viewpoints. Their videos are being viewed and rated highly," Wilson said.

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Poor Refrigeration Ruins Vaccine Doses

Each year in the United States, poor refrigeration ruins hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccines designed to protect children against disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

This could present a public health threat because inadequate refrigeration means that vaccines lose their potency. Children who receive under-strength vaccines may not be protected against diseases such as flu, whooping cough, tetanus, mumps, measles and chicken pox, the Associated Press reported.

In addition, vaccine doses ruined by poor refrigeration account for a major portion of the $20 million in waste incurred by the federal Vaccines for Children program.

A number of groups have issued clear recommendations about storing vaccines, Dr. Joseph Bocchini, chairman of the Committee on Infectious Diseases with the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the AP. He noted that refrigerators can be equipped with alarms that sound when the inside temperature moves out of range for proper vaccine storage.

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Lead Found in 35 Percent of Children's Products

Lead was found in 35 percent of 1,268 children's products tested by a coalition of U.S. environmental health groups, the Associated Press reports. About 17 percent of the products had lead levels far above the federal recall standard for lead paint.

The Consumer Action Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys tested the products for lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic chemicals.

The tests revealed that only 20 percent of the toys and other children's products had no trace of lead or harmful chemicals, according to results released by groups in 10 states, including the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, Mich.

"This is not about alarming parents. We're just trying to give people information because they haven't had very much except these recall lists," Tracey Easthope, director of the Ecology Center's Environmental Health Project, told the AP.

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Switching Off Gene Cuts Body Fat Production

Turning off the SCD-1 gene in the liver substantially reduces the conversion of carbohydrates into body fat, says a University of Wisconsin study in the December issue of the journal Cell Metabolism.

The finding, from research in mice, suggests that SCD-1 could be a target for new medicines designed to block the gene's actions, lead author and biochemist James Ntambi told the Toronto Star.

Even when mice ate a steady diet of sugary and starchy foods, those that had the liver's SCD-1 gene switched off remained slim.

Ntambi said an enzyme produced by the SCD-1 gene plays an important role in the conversion of carbohydrates into fat, the Star reported. Carbohydrates that aren't turned into fat are broken down harmlessly in the body.

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GE, Kenmore Ovens Recalled for Fire Hazard

On the heels of at least 35 reports of damaging fires, General Electric on Wednesday announced a recall of 92,000 combination wall and microwave ovens. There have been no reported injuries.

The company said the door switch on the microwave oven can overheat and ignite plastic components in the appliance. The lower thermal oven doesn't pose a hazard, the Associated Press reported.

The ovens, produced under the Kenmore, GE, and GE Profile brands, were sold in department and appliance stores in the United States between January 2000 and December 2003. The ovens were made by GE Consumer and Industrial, of Louisville, Ky.

Consumers should stop using the appliances immediately. Those with GE brands should call GE at (888) 240-2745, and those with Kenmore products should call Sears at (888) 679-0282.

Both GE and Sears are offering a free repair, or a rebate on a new purchase, the AP reported.

Posted: December 2007


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