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Health Highlights: Nov. 12, 2007

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

Cities Must Prepare for Nuclear Attack

In the aftermath of a nuclear attack on a U.S. city, loss of medical resources and personnel would prove a major problem in efforts to treat survivors, say researchers who analyzed the effects of theoretical 20- and 550-kiloton nuclear detonations in Los Angeles and Houston.

"After a nuclear attack, the surviving health care community would be faced with an unprecedented burden of care for burn victims. This burden would be compounded by the loss of hospitals, doctors, nurses and other health professionals," study author Cham E. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia, said in a prepared statement.

Dallas and a colleague calculated that a 550-kiloton attack in Los Angeles would result in 786,000 burn victims, with about 185,000 likely to survive. In Houston, a similar attack would cause 257,579 burn casualties, with about 59,000 likely to survive.

The researchers offered four recommendations on how cities can better prepare for a nuclear attack:

  • Increase the number of medical personnel trained in burn care, including non-physicians.
  • Develop plans for dealing with displaced people who will need shelter, food, water, clothing, basic health care and safety.
  • Pre-position secure stockpiles of narcotics for use in mass burn care.
  • Create regional mobilization systems, such as air transport, to move medical resources and personnel.

The study appears in the American Medical Association journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.


Ebola Virus Able to Mutate: Study

The deadly Ebola virus is able to mutate, say French scientists who found that the virus is able to swap genetic material to create new strains. The researchers said this discovery has major implications for attempts to control the virus, Agence France-Presse reported.

The same Zaire species of Ebola (ZEBOV) has accounted for nearly 90 percent of all deaths from hemorrhagic fever since Ebola was discovered in 1976. But this study of samples taken from six gorillas and a chimpanzee killed by the virus in Gabon and the Republic of Congo between 2001 and 2006 identified a new variation of ZEBOV.

Ebola is deadly to gorillas and chimpanzees, as well as to people.

The genome of this new variation differs from the known lineage of ZEBOV by up to three percent. The researchers said this variation can only be explained by recombination, a process in which two viruses exchange genetic material, AFP reported.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Stem Cells Used to Treat Vascular Disease in Mice

Human embryonic stem cells helped save limbs in mice with vascular disease, says a study in the latest online edition of the journal Circulation.

Researchers at Hanyang University in South Korea said stem cells were coaxed into forming blood vessel cells that were grafted onto mice limbs damaged by ischemia, a lack of sufficient blood flow, Agence France-Presse reported.

Among the 11 mice that received this treatment, four developed new vascular cells the fully revived the affected limb, four showed some improvement, and three lost their limbs due to lack of blood flow. All 10 mice given alternative treatment did not recover.

The study authors said additional research may enable scientists to find ways to use this approach to create a wide range of blood vessels in order to treat strokes and other ailments in people, AFP reported.


Hypertension Drug May Help Treat MS

The blood pressure drug amiloride may prove an effective treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS), according to researchers at Oxford University in the U.K.

They found that amiloride reduced degeneration of nerve tissue in mice. The researchers are now planning to test the drug in MS patients, BBC News reported. The study appears in the journal Nature Medicine.

The researchers conducted tests on mice with an MS-like condition, finding that the drug blocked a channel that permitted excess calcium to accumulate in nerve cells and cause degeneration.

"It was known that calcium is not good for nerve cells but it's not been appreciated how simple it is to block it," said study author Professor Lars Fugger, BBC News reported.

Amiloride has been used for years to treat high blood pressure and heart failure.


Chinese Government Admits Toys Contained 'Date-Rape' Chemical

The Chinese government acknowledged over the weekend that millions of Aqua Dots toys recalled in the United States do indeed contain a chemical that can turn into what is known as the "date-rape" drug if ingested.

The Associated Press reported the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine issued a statement Nov. 10 saying that the toys were coated with the industrial chemical 1,4-butanediol (GHB) and were from a factory in a city near Hong Kong.

U.S. stores began removing Aqua Dots toys from their shelves last week after an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found the presence of the dangerous chemical, the wire service reported.

aqua dots recall

Aqua Dots are beads that can be arranged into designs that hold together when the beads are sprayed with water. At least nine children in the United States and three Australian children have been hospitalized after swallowing the beads, the AP reported.

"The Shenzhen factory started to produce the bead toys after its trial products provided to the agent received no objection," the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a statement to the AP.

The investigation revealed that the toys were coated with harmful 1,4-butanediol -- widely used in plastics and cleaners -- instead of the specified 1,5-pentanediol, a nontoxic compound found in glue. The date-rape drug gammahydroxybutyrate can cause death. Its symptoms include respiratory difficulty, loss of consciousness, seizures, drowsiness and coma.

In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared 1,4-butanediol a class I health hazard because it can cause life-threatening harm, the AP reported.

Aqua Dots were sold in 40 countries, the wire service said.


U.S. Infant Mortality Rate Still Needs Improvement, Statistics Show

It isn't surprising that the U.S. infant mortality rate continues to drop. But what may be surprising is that even with a lower infant death rate, the United States ranks near the bottom among modernized nations, the Associated Press reports.

First, the good news. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. infant mortality rate for 2004 (the latest year with complete statistics) was about seven babies for every 1,000 live births before reaching the first birthday, compared to 26 deaths per 1,000 births in 1960.

But what may at first seem like a remarkable achievement is actually not impressive when statistics show the United States ranking near the bottom among industrialized nations in infant mortality, the AP reported. A 2006 Save the Children report listed the U.S. ahead of only Latvia, and tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia near the bottom of the list.

Why aren't infant death rates even lower? Racial and economic disparities, the wire service reported. For example, CDC statistics show that babies born to black mothers in the United States die at two-and-a-half times the rate of babies whose mothers are white, the AP reported.

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Posted: November 2007