Health Highlights: May 25, 2011

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

Study Links Spinal Fusion Product to Male Sterility

A study from a Stanford University surgeon released Wednesday suggests that a widely used growth protein used in spinal fusion procedures may heighten men's risk of sterility, The New York Times reported.

The product in question is Infuse, a bioengineered bone growth protein from Medtronic that has been used in spinal anterior lumbar fusion procedures since 2002, the Times explained. While the Infuse label does list sterility-linked complications as a possible side effect, studies sponsored by Medtronic have attributed the complications to the surgery, not Infuse.

But Dr. Eugene J. Carragee, a Stanford surgeon, reported in the online edition of The Spine Journal Wednesday that men who received Infuse developed temporary or permanent sterility much more often than men who received a bone graft, an alternative treatment used to fuse vertebrae. That study was based on 240 men he treated several years ago.

"It is important that men who are considering having children have the opportunity to weigh the risks of the various available procedures," Carragee told the Times.

Over 80,000 people undergo anterior lumbar fusion procedures each year, the newspaper said, and about half of these procedures use Infuse. According to Carragee's study, five of 69 men who received Infuse developed a complication linked to sterility, compared to one of 174 men who got a bone graft.

The two authors of the prior, Medtronic-funded trials defended their findings, saying the number of men in their clinical trials who had developed sterility did not reach statistical significance. Surgeons Dr. J. Kenneth Burkus and Dr. Thomas A. Zdeblick also noted that Carragee's study was retrospective in nature. Zdeblick told the Times that such studies "are notorious for being misleading."

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USDA Says Pork Can Cook Safely at Lower Temp

Experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service have tweaked longstanding guidelines and now say that pork can be safely cooked at the same temperature that's safe for beef, veal and lamb: 145 degrees.

Cooked pork should also be put aside and allowed to rest for 3 minutes after removal from the grill and before serving, giving high temperatures a little more time to kill pathogens, the USDA said Tuesday.

"With a single temperature for all whole cuts of meat and uniform 3-minute stand time, we feel it will be much easier for consumers to remember and result in safer food preparation," USDA Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen said in a news release, the AP reported.

Ceci Snyder, vice president of marketing for the National Pork Board, based in Des Moines, Iowa, said pork producers first proposed the change back in 2008, citing improvements in feed and housing that had cut the risk for pathogens in pigs.

Snyder told the AP that it's important that consumers use a digital thermometer placed in the thickest section of the meat to make certain it is being properly cooked, however.

The drop in the USDA safe cooking temperature guideline does not extend to ground meats or poultry products, which should still be cooked at 160 and 165 degrees, respectively, the AP reported.

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U.S. Abortion Numbers Fall, Except Among Poor Women

The number of American women having an abortion fell by 8 percent between 2000 and 2008, but among women in the lowest income bracket it rose by almost 18 percent, a new study finds.

Experts attribute the seemingly contradictory findings to the nation's struggling economy.

"In the middle of a recession, it's possible women have reduced access to contraception and have more unintended pregnancies," study author Rachel Jones, senior research associate at New York City's Guttmacher Institute, told ABC News on Tuesday. "It's also possible that women confronted with unplanned pregnancies when they are out of work decide to have abortions, even though they might have carried it to term in more stable times."

The study, published in the June issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, was based on patient surveys. The Guttmacher team used the data to estimate the rate of abortion across the spectrum of race, ethnicity and income.

According to ABC News, one 2006 study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that about half of U.S. pregnancies are unintended and about half of those are terminated by abortion.

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Destruction of Last Smallpox Stocks Delayed for 3 Years

Global health officials on Tuesday decided to defer setting any deadline for the destruction of the last reserves of smallpox for at least three years, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Experts at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making arm of the United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO), made the decision after two days of heated debate on the subject. Smallpox was eradicated over three decades ago, and a WHO panel in the early 1990s advocated destroying samples of the deadly virus kept in labs in the United States and Russia.

However, those two countries, along with more than two dozen others, have lobbied to keep the samples for at least another five years. They argue that bioterrorists could use unknown stocks to spread the scourge, or re-create the virus via synthesis, the WSJ reported.

"This was a good outcome," Nils Daulaire, director of the Office of Global Health Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and head of the U.S. delegation at the World Health Assembly, told the WSJ. "It didn't go as far as we would have liked, but the result is the research program central to the reason for maintaining the virus continues and we'll be three years closer to having the countermeasures we're aiming for."

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Posted: May 2011


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