Health Highlights: April 23, 2019

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

Medicaid Expansion Benefits Black Newborns: Study

The expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act has narrowed the gap in rates of premature birth and low birth weight between black and white infants born in the United States, according to a new study.

Both conditions can significantly increase an infant's risk of death, CNN reported.

Compared to white infants, black infants are about 1.5 times more likely to be born prematurely and about two times more likely to have low birth weight.

However, that racial gap narrowed between 2011 and 2016 in the 18 states that expanded Medicaid, according to the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The effect size for black infants in expansion states was between 5% and 15%," said senior author J. Mick Tilford, professor and chair of health policy and management, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, CNN reported.

"It's one more piece of the puzzle that points to the gains in health from Medicaid expansion, especially to certain populations," Tilford said.

"We believe that these findings should be considered in policymakers' calculus of whether to expand Medicaid or not," he said, CNN reported.

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Theranos Founder Appears in Court

One of the two executives of a failed blood-testing startup in California accused of cheating investors, doctors and patients out of millions of dollars appeared in court on Monday.

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, 35, was in federal court in San Jose. The judge proposed a trial date of July 8, but a date was not set. Another status hearing was scheduled for July 1, NBC News reported.

The company's chief operating officer, Ramesh Balwani, also faces charges.

If convicted, the two could face life in jail and total fines of $2.75 million each. Both have pleaded not guilty, NBC News reported.

Theranos claimed it had revolutionary blood-testing technology that would require less blood. But the company never actually had such technology, according to investigators.

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Electrical Stimulation Restores Parkinson's Patients' Walking Ability

An implant that electrically stimulates the spine restored the Parkinson's disease patients' ability to walk, researchers say.

A quarter of Parkinson's patients have difficulty walking as the disease progresses, often freezing in place and falling.

The Canadian researchers said that previously housebound patients who received the implant are now able to walk more freely, BBC News reported.

The benefits to the patients are beyond the "wildest dreams," of Mandar Jog, Western University in London, Ontario.

"Most of our patients have had the disease for 15 years and have not walked with any confidence for several years," Jog told BBC News. "For them to go from being home-bound, with the risk of falling, to being able to go on trips to the mall and have vacations is remarkable for me to see."

When walking, our brain sends instructions to the legs to move, and then receives signals back when the movement has been completed before sending instructions for the next step, BBC News reported.

In people with Parkinson's, there is a reduction in signals returning to the brain, breaking the loop and causing the person to freeze, according to Jog.

The implant boosts the signal so that the patient can walk normally, BBC News reported.

"This is a completely different rehabilitation therapy," Jog said. "We had thought that the movement problems occurred in Parkinson's patients because signals from the brain to the legs were not getting through.

"But it seems that it's the signals getting back to the brain that are degraded."

Scans revealed that before receiving the implant, brain areas that control movement were not working properly in the Parkinson's patients. Those areas were restored a few months into treatment, BBC News reported.

"The results seen in this small-scale pilot study are very promising and the therapy certainly warrants further investigation," said Beckie Port, research manager at Parkinson's UK.

"Should future studies show the same level of promise, it has the potential to dramatically improve quality of life, giving people with Parkinson's the freedom to enjoy everyday activities," she told BBC News.

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Malawi First Country to Immunize Children Against Malaria

Malawi has become the first country to start immunizing children against malaria, the World Health Organization says.

The country will use the only licensed vaccine to protect against the mosquito-spread disease. The vaccine, called Mosquirix, was approved by the European Medicines Agency in 2015, the Associated Press reported.

The vaccine only protects about one-third of children against malaria. But even if it doesn't prevent the disease, the vaccine can reduce the risk of severe malaria.

"It's an imperfect vaccine but it still has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives," Alister Craig, dean of biological sciences, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, U.K., told the AP.

It could prevent many thousands of children from falling ill with malaria or dying, according to Craig, who is not associated with the WHO or the vaccine.

Malaria kills about 435,000 people every year, most of them children under 5 in Africa, the AP reported.

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L.A. County Measles Outbreak Under Investigation

A measles outbreak is being investigated by the Los Angeles County Department of Health.

Officials said there have been five confirmed cases among county residents so far this year, including four linked to one another after international travel, and a single case after international travel, CBS News reported.

"We will likely see additional measles cases in Los Angeles County, so it is important if you or someone you know has the symptoms of measles or has been exposed to measles to contact your health care provider by phone right away before seeking treatment," said Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles County Health Officer.

"The best way to protect yourself and to prevent the spread of measles is to get the measles immunization, with two doses of measles immunization being about 97 percent effective at preventing measles," Davis added.

California is among 22 states that have reported measles cases so far this year. The number of measles cases in the United States since Jan. 1 just reached 626, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's just 42 fewer than the 2014 record of 667 cases, the highest number since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

"In the coming weeks, 2019 confirmed case numbers will likely surpass 2014 levels," the CDC said on its website Monday.

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