Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2008

Dueling U.S. Agencies at Odds Over Fish Consumption Test Predicts Onset of Preterm Labor FDA Panel Endorses New Female Condom Certain Dementia Patients Can't Detect Sarcasm Obama Announces Daschle Is HHS Secretary Nominee Hong Kong Reports First Farm Outbreak of Bird Flu in 6 Years

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

Dueling U.S. Agencies at Odds Over Fish Consumption

A proposal to encourage eating of fish to promote a healthier lifestyle is becoming a political issue in the final months of the Bush administration, reports the Associated Press.

A long-standing government recommendation that pregnant women and children limit their intake of fish because of the possibility that they may also consume harmful amounts of mercury is being reconsidered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the wire service reports.

This has evoked intra-agency controversy, with the Environmental Protection Agency challenging the scientific accuracy of the FDA's 270 page draft of a study concluding that the health benefits of fish consumption outweigh the possibility that a dangerous amount of mercury would be ingested.

Environmental groups are upset as well, the A.P. reports. Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, issued a statement: "The FDA was once a fearsome protector of the public health. Now it's nothing more than a patsy for polluters."

Not surprisingly, the food industry is supportive of the FDA's study. One lobbying group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, told the wire service that it "just might be the best Christmas present health-conscious Americans could hope for."


Test Predicts Onset of Preterm Labor

A test that predicts whether premature birth is imminent if a woman's water breaks early in pregnancy has been identified by Swedish researchers.

In such cases, there's a strong link between high levels of lactate in vaginal fluid and onset of labor within 48 hours, said the researchers, who assessed the test in 86 women with single pregnancies of 20 to 36 weeks gestation, BBC News reported.

The study found that 87 percent of the 23 women with high lactate concentrations had spontaneous labor within 48 hours, compared with 5 percent of the 58 women with low lactate concentrations.

Among women with high lactate concentrations, the average time between examination of labor onset was 13.6 hours, compared with 48 days for those with low lactate levels, BBC News reported.

The study about the "Lac-test" appears in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology.


FDA Panel Endorses New Female Condom

A second-generation female condom called the FC2 Female Condom should be approved for use in the United States, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel decided Thursday.

In its 15-0 vote recommending approval by the full agency, the panel said there should be a condition that instructions for use remain the same as those for the FC1 Female Condom. The panel also said the manufacturer should identify the study performed to establish the comparable safety and effectiveness of FC2 with FC1.

The first generation FC1 condom was approved for U.S. sale in 1993, and 165 million of the condoms have been distributed in 142 countries. So far, 22 million of the FC2 condoms have been distributed in 77 countries. The World Health Organization has said the condoms can be purchased by United Nations agencies.

The FC2 condom looks similar to the FC1, but is produced and sold at a lower cost. The product is made by the Female Health Company, based in Chicago.

While not required to do so, the FDA usually follows the advice of its advisory panels.


Certain Dementia Patients Can't Detect Sarcasm

People under the age of 65 with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) can't detect when someone is being sarcastic, a finding that may help improve diagnosis of the condition, say Australian researchers.

FTD, also called Pick's disease, is the second most common form of dementia and can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages.

In this study, actors presented scenarios to 26 FTD patients and 19 Alzheimer's patients. The scenarios used the exact same words but were presented either in a sincere tone or laced with sarcasm, Agence France Presse reported.

The Alzheimer's patients picked up on the sarcasm but the FTD patients did not, concluded the University of New South Wales study, which appears in the journal Brain.

"The patients with FTD are very literal and they take what is being said as genuine and sincere," AFP quoted senior author John Hodges as saying. He said the findings help explain the behavior of people with FTD, which is often upsetting to family members.

"(FTD patients) find it difficult to interact with people, they don't pick up on social cues, they lack empathy, they make bad judgments," Hodges said.


Obama Announces Daschle Is HHS Secretary Nominee

President-elect Barack Obama formally introduced former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle Thursday as his nominee for U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, according to published reports.

Calling America's health care system the nation's "largest domestic policy challenge," Obama also said Daschle would oversee a new White House Office of Health Reform.

Obama's choice of Daschle to head HHS has been known for several weeks.

Daschle, a Democrat who was part of the health care advisory group of Obama's transition team, has said he was excited about the possibility of leading the new president's efforts to change the nation's health care system.

He believes reforming health care is a priority in the current economic downturn.

"We can't afford not to do it. If we do nothing, we'll be paying twice as much on health care in 10 years as we do today," he said last month, CNN reported.

In a recent book titled Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis, Daschle advocated universal health coverage to reach 46 million uninsured people. He said this could be done by expanding the federal employee health benefits program to include private employer plans together with Medicare and Medicaid.

Jeanne Lambrew, who helped Daschle write the book about health care reform, will serve as deputy director of the new White House health policy office. Heads of health advocacy groups have described Lambrew as one of Daschle's most trusted advisers on health issues. She will oversee planning efforts, the AP reported.


Hong Kong Reports First Farm Outbreak of Bird Flu in 6 Years

The first outbreak of H5N1 bird flu on a Hong Kong poultry farm in nearly six years was confirmed by government officials Thursday.

It was announced Tuesday that bird flu was found on a farm near the Chinese border and 90,000 chickens were scheduled for slaughter by the end of the week. Initial tests identified an H5 virus and the new test results confirmed that it's the deadly H5N1 virus, Agence France Presse reported.

The virus has not been found on any other farms in the area.

The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation, said Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the WHO's Western Pacific regional office. He told AFP the outbreak isn't a surprise because the virus is versatile and tends to be more active in winter.

Hong Kong officials said the H5N1 virus has "changed slightly" and have told scientists to investigate whether the vaccine used since 2003 to protect chickens against bird flu is still effective.

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