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Health Highlights: Sept. 28, 2008

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

Light Cigarette Nicotine Brain Activation Almost as Strong as Regular Cigarettes, Study Says

Apparently, just about only thing "light" about cigarettes who are advertised that way is the wording in the ad itself.

According to a news release from the University of California at Los Angeles, the latest research indicates that so-called light cigarettes deliver nearly as much nicotine to the brain as regular cigarettes.

UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Arthur L. Brody and his colleagues found that even the smallest amount of nicotine in a person's system will activate a significant percentage of the brain's nicotine receptors. It is the receptors in the brain that lead to nicotine addiction.

Brody and his colleagues looked at the effect on the brain of a type of cigarette called a de-nicotized cigarette, which contains only a fraction of nicotine (0.05 milligrams) in both light and regular cigarettes.

They found that even that low a nicotine level is enough to occupy a sizable percentage of receptors. "The two take-home messages are that very little nicotine is needed to occupy a substantial portion of brain nicotine receptors," Brody said in the news release, "and cigarettes with less nicotine than regular cigarettes, such as 'light' cigarettes, still occupy most brain nicotine receptors."

And even though de-nicotinized cigarettes activate about 66 percent fewer receptors in the brain than light cigarettes, it's still enough to "light up" almost 25 percent of them, Brody says. "Researchers, clinicians and smokers themselves should consider that fact when trying to quit," he concludes.

The UCLA study is in the current online edition of the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.


Melamine Contamination From China Found in Some Snack Foods

China's melamine contamination problem may be spreading to the snack world.

In the wake of recalls late last week of a vanilla-flavored snack known as white Rabbit from stores in Britain, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, the Associated Press reports that the product was also removed from store shelves in Hong Kong. Government officials say the snack contained more than five times the allowable amount of melamine, the wire service reports.

The problem is that melamine, an industrial chemical, has long been in China as an additive to milk powder. Almost 55,000 Chinese infants have been sickened from the milk powder, according to government estimates, including four who died.

But the milk powder has also been used in making creamy snacks, the A.P. reports, and health officials are only now beginning to determine how widespread the problem may be.

Food company and health officials also have to be aware of how rapidly a rumor can spread. Last week, the wire service reports, the Internet was crackling with reports the middle of the Oreo cookie contained melamine. This promoted a quick and intense response from Kraft Foods, emphasizing that Oreos' middles are not made with milk.

Meanwhile seven "Mr. Brown"-brand instant coffee and tea products, produced in China, are being recalled because they may be contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

According to a statement posted on the FDA Web site, the recalled adult coffee products, made by China's Shandong Duqing Inc., are:

  • Mr. Brown Mandheling Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown Arabica Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown Caramel Macchiato Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown French Vanilla Instant Coffee (3-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown Mandhling Blend instant Coffee (2-in-1)
  • Mr. Brown Milk Tea (3-in-1)

No illnesses related to the candy, coffee, or tea products have been reported in the United States, Bloomberg News cited the FDA as saying.


CDC Notes Mild West Nile Season

The 2008 West Nile virus season is shaping up to be the mildest since 2001, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The 368 severe cases tallied as of Tuesday represented less than one-third of the 2007 total, the Associated Press reported.

Most cases of West Nile are reported in August and September. The CDC said it wasn't clear why this season was on track to be so mild. Seven years ago, the last time so few severe cases were reported, the virus was just emerging in the United States and had only been identified in 10 states, the AP said.

Only about one in five people bitten by a West Nile infected mosquito becomes sick, and only about one in 150 contracts severe symptoms. These can include neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, and paralysis.


U.S. Halts Chelation Study Enrollment

The U.S. government has stopped enrolling participants in the largest alternative medicine study it's ever funded to assess whether candidates were properly informed of the potential risks, the Associated Press reported Friday.

More than 1,500 people who had survived a heart attack had been enrolled in the $30 million study of chelation, a controversial method most often used as a remedy for lead poisoning. Despite the halt to new enrollees, existing participants are still being treated.

The study is meant to test the use of high doses of vitamins, minerals, and chelation -- a therapy that involves injection of a drug (disodium EDTA) that proponents claim helps rid the body of calcium-causing plaque that's built up in artery walls. The therapy hasn't been proven safe or effective in treating heart disease.

At least two of the participants have died, although the study's lead physician denied the deaths were related to the therapy.

"We think we have a safe and ethical trial and we're protecting our patients," the AP quoted Dr. Gervasio Lamas of the University of Miami as saying.

Lamas couldn't say precisely how many study enrollees had died. He also conceded that some participating physicians who had been disciplined by state boards or who had criminal records had been asked to withdraw from the study, the wire service said.

Study critics said the research, approved in 2002, represented a conflict of interest for more than half of the physicians involved, since they made money by selling chelation treatments to patients, the AP reported.


Standardized Color Plan for Hospital Wristbands Faces Hurdles

A new standardized system for color-coded wristbands in hospitals to prevent potentially dangerous mistakes is essential to patient safety, proponents say, but others fear they may compromise patient privacy, The New York Times reported.

The movement to standardize color coding of the hospital bands gathered steam, in part, because of a 2005 Pennsylvania case where a patient nearly died when a nurse mistakenly used an incorrect band. The plan is to have the wristbands designate patient conditions so treatment can be checked: Purple, or amethyst, means Do Not Resuscitate (D.N.R.); red, or ruby, indicates allergies; and yellow, or amber, identifies someone at risk for falling, according the Times.

But the Joint Commission, the nation's leading hospital-accreditation agency, has cited concerns about branding patients by their end-of-life choices, or inadvertently broadcasting those choices to family and friends not involved in those choices, the newspaper said. The commission even pointed out that children sometimes unknowingly trade the wristbands like baseball cards. And some hospitals have had problems with colored bracelets that patients bring with them, such as the yellow Lance Armstrong Livestrong bracelets. Most hospitals ask patients to cut these other bands off or cover them up with tape instead, the Times said.

"You need to strike a balance between the need for patient safety and accuracy and the whole privacy concern and sensitivity and compassion for the patient, Roxanne G. Tena-Nelson, executive vice president of the Continuing Care Leadership Coalition, a group of long-term care providers in New York, told the Times.

In most places, the newspaper reported, the new bracelets replace colored ones that have been used for decades without uniformity. A survey by the Greater New York Hospital Association last year found nine different colors used to denote patients with D.N.R. orders, five to indicate allergies, and nine to highlight risks of falling, but there is still some variation.

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Posted: September 2008