Health Highlights: April 7, 2003

SARS Death Toll Now 100 Schools Near Nuke Plants Should Stock Radiation Pills Marijuana Bad For Mental Health Hypothyroidism May Cut Breast Cancer Risk Teen Mother Awakens From 15-Month Coma

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

SARS Death Toll Now 100

China's government revealed on Monday that SARS had spread to more of its provinces than it had previously acknowledged, as the death toll from the global respiratory illness reached 100.

Chinese state television reported one death each in the provinces of Shanxi in the north, Sichuan in the west and Hunan in central China -- the first deaths from the severe acute respiratory syndrome in those areas and an indication the disease was more widespread than previously acknowledged, according to the Associated Press.

That brings China's death toll to 53, 43 of which occurred in Guangdon Province, the site of the original outbreak. China's list of infected now stands at 1,268. The country has faced worldwide criticism for not releasing details of the infections sooner.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong health officials said a 78-year-old woman had died, its 53rd fatality. The territory now has 883 SARS cases, the largest number outside mainland China. Singapore also announced two more fatalities, with a victim caseload of 106.

Canada, reporting its ninth fatality, added another 16 probable cases in and around Toronto, for a total of 179 cases in Ontario, Canada's most populous province. The country now has 217 probable or suspected cases.

The U.S. toll, meanwhile, has also increased, to 141 suspected cases in 29 states. The worldwide toll of victims is now more than 2,600 people in 17 countries in Asia, Europe and North America, according to the World Health Organization. That is an increase of 85 cases and 11 deaths since Friday.

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Schools Near Nuke Plants Should Stock Radiation Pills

Potassium iodine pills should be stocked in schools, child-care centers and homes near nuclear power plants to protect children from radiation released by accident or by a terrorist attack, a new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy recommends.

The pills protect people who've been exposed to radiation from developing thyroid cancer. No prescription is required to buy the pills, which are available at certain drug stores and also can be purchased over the Internet and by phone, the Associated Press reports.

Children are particularly vulnerable to radiation. Their bodies absorb and metabolize substances differently than adult bodies. Children are also closer to the ground, where fallout settles.

The AAP recommendation appears in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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Marijuana Bad For Mental Health

Your mental health may suffer if you're a regular pot smoker, a British toxicology expert warns.

Professor John Henry from St. Mary's Hospital in London says there's growing evidence that marijuana causes mental health problems. He notes that a number of studies point to an increase in schizophrenia and depression among people who are regular pot users, BBC News Online reports.

At a Royal Society of Medicine conference on Monday, Henry said the strength of marijuana sold today is far stronger than what was available in the 1960s and 1970s.

"People who want to smoke cannabis ought to be aware that it has equal effects to cigarettes on the body and worse effects on the mind," Henry told BBC News Online.

There is disagreement about the impact that smoking marijuana has on mental health. Some experts say there is no clear-cut evidence of harm.

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Hypothyroidism May Cut Breast Cancer Risk

Women who have hypothyroidism seem to have a lower risk of developing invasive breast cancer, says a study by researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

In a news release, the researchers say their study of 2,226 females found that women newly diagnosed with breast cancer were 57 percent less likely to have hypothyroidism, compared to women without breast cancer.

Hypothyroidism is a common disorder that occurs when the thyroid gland fails to produce enough thyroid hormone. That lack of thyroid hormone can affect all body functions and lead to physical and mental lethargy.

The researchers suggest their findings indicate a possible role for thyroid hormone in developing ways to prevent breast cancer. The study results were published in the Proceedings for the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

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Teen Mother Awakens From 15-Month Coma

A teenage mother in California has emerged from a coma that began minutes after she gave birth 15 months ago.

Doctors had told Jessica Diaz's mother that they doubted the teen would ever awaken, reports CBS News. Her condition was caused by a potentially deadly brain tumor, and the surgery to remove it left her blind in one eye and with poor vision in the other.

Jessica, now 18, lapsed into a coma just 10 minutes after she gave birth to Julio Ortiz Jr. -- named after her boyfriend -- on January 17, 2002.

Days after emerging from the coma, she is able to blink and lift her arms, but can't smile, talk or walk. Doctors say she probably woke up because her brain developed new neurological pathways to compensate for the tumor and the significant part of her brain that was removed during the surgery.

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