Health Highlights: Jan. 8, 2009

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

Large Lab Admits Problems With Vitamin D Tests

Quest Diagnostics, the largest provider of medical laboratory tests in the United States, says it has fixed a problem that led to higher vitamin D readings for about 7 percent of patients from 2007 to 2008, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The Madison, N.J., lab said it noticed an "upward trend" in the vitamin D levels being registered on some of its tests during the summer, then offered free tests for patients whose results were called into question, according to Gary Samuels, the company's vice president for communications. Blood tests to check vitamin D levels are on the rise, because research has shown a possible link between too little "sunshine vitamin" and a higher risk for cancer and heart disease.

Quest's chief medical official, Dr. Wael Salameh, told AP that he doubted patients would have suffered any harm. People with serious vitamin D deficiency, he said, often exhibit physical symptoms such as fractures that doctors would have noticed. "A good doctor would question the test," Salameh added. "For the few vulnerable patients, other indicators would have flagged the situation to their physician."

Quest said the cause of the problem proved to be how some of the company's testing chemicals were mixed. But the company is using a new testing technology, AP reported, which critics say tends to produce higher vitamin D readings.

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FDA Mulls OK for Blood Thinner From Genetically Engineered Goats

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving closer to approval for an anti-clotting drug made from the milk of genetically engineered goats, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Called ATryn, the drug was developed by GTC Biotherapeutics, a Massachusetts biotech company, by altering goat genes to produce milk rich in antithrombin, a protein that acts as a natural blood thinner in humans. ATryn has already been approved in Europe, and FDA advisers are expected to meet Friday to make a recommendation on approval. The FDA will then make the final decision, the news service said.

"It's the first time we've held an advisory committee meeting on any product from a genetically engineered animal," FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey told AP. If the drug is approved, DeLancey added, the agency may require follow-up monitoring to insure patients' immune systems don't make antibodies to the medication.

About 1 in 5,000 people don't produce enough antithrombin, putting them at risk of developing painful blood clots that can break loose and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs or the brain, AP reported. Pregnant women with the disorder are at high risk of miscarriage or stillbirth because of blood clots in the placenta.

Antithrombin has until now been produced from blood products collected from human donors, one expert told AP, but making the protein from goats may be better for humans, since it could ensure a steady supply and reduce concerns about infection.

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No Cause Given for Ongoing Salmonella Outbreak

The salmonella bacterium continues to sicken hundreds of Americans, and the latest strain has caused an outbreak in 42 states during the past three months, with a reported 388 cases.

USA Today reports that officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have become concerned enough about the latest incidences to form a task force to find the cause.

This can be a daunting task. For example, more than 1,400 people in the United States suffered from salmonella poisoning in 2008 before the source was found -- peppers imported from Mexico. And another 401 cases in 41 states were reported in November, caused by the bacterium in microwaveable pot pies.

Infectious disease specialists don't yet know the source of the current illnesses, if there is indeed a single source.

The CDC says salmonella symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever, and it usually is spread by fecal matter coming in contact with food people eat, whether animal or vegetable.

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Fewer Than Half of Distressed Adults Sought Treatment

Of the 24.3 million adults who had serious psychological distress (SPD) in 2006, fewer than half (44.6 percent) sought treatment, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said Wednesday.

"This report shows that mental health problems affect almost 10 percent of people over age 18 years old, but less than half receive services that could help improve their situation," SAMHSA Acting Administrator Eric Broderick said in a news release.

The SPD rate was highest among adults aged 18 to 25 (17.9 percent), followed by those aged 26 to 49 (12.2 percent) and 50 or older (7 percent). Of adults 18 to 25, 29.4 percent received mental health services, compared to 47.2 percent among people 26 to 49 and 53.8 percent of those 50 and older.

Slightly more than half (50.9 percent) of whites availed themselves of mental health services, compared to fewer than 30 percent of blacks and Hispanics, the agency said.

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Millions Purchasing Individual Health Insurance Policies

About 10.9 million Americans under age 65 bought individual health insurance policies in 2006, but just 7 million of them were covered for the entire year, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Those who were covered for only part of 2006 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- were covered for an average of six months, the agency said in a news release.

Most individual health policies are bought because purchasers can't get insurance from their employers, or they are unemployed, or they don't qualify for Medicaid or other public insurance plans, the AHRQ said.

Posted: January 2009


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