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Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2007

Moving Child From Orphanage to Foster Home Boosts IQ Accidental CO Poisoning Kills More Than 400 Americans a Year African Nations Facing Major Meningitis Outbreak: Red Cross Study Suggests Nervous System/PMS Link High-Strain Jobs Linked to Absenteeism, Less Productivity

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

Moving Child From Orphanage to Foster Home Boosts IQ

A study of Romanian children found dramatic improvements in IQ once youngsters were removed from orphanages and placed in foster care instead.

The study, led by Dr. Charles Nelson III of Harvard Medical School, involved 136 young children from Bucharest's six orphanages. The children were randomly assigned to continue living in the orphanage or be moved into the new state-run foster care system.

The main finding: "The longer they stay in the institution, the worse their IQ," Nelson told the Associated Press. Improvements were most marked among children who left the orphanage before age 2, a period that experts believe is key to healthy brain development.

In fact, by 4.5 years of age, children who had been moved to foster care were scoring almost 10 points higher on IQ tests than those who had remained in the orphanage, and those who had made the move before age 2 scored an average 15 points higher, the researchers said.

In many cases, this leap in IQ meant the difference between borderline retardation and average intelligence, the team reported in the Dec. 21 issue of Science.

Children raised in their biological homes fared best of all, with IQ scores averaging 10-20 points higher than the foster-care children, the study found.

"The research provides concrete scientific evidence on the long-term impacts of the deprivation of quality care for children," UNICEF child protection specialist Aaron Greenberg told the AP. "The interesting part about this is the one-on-one caring of a young child ... impacts cognitive and intellectual development," he said.


Accidental CO Poisoning Kills More Than 400 Americans a Year

A new report underscores the importance of taking precautions to protect you and your loved ones from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, especially when using heating appliances during the winter.

From 1999 to 2004, accidental carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning killed an average of 439 people a year in the United States, says a study in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless toxic gas produced by devices such as natural gas-powered furnaces and portable generators. Many people overlook or aren't aware of symptoms of CO poisoning, including headache, nausea, dizziness and confusion.

From 1999 to 2004, there were a total of 2,631 unintentional, non-fire-related CO deaths in the nation, for an annual average age-adjusted death rate of 1.5 deaths per one million people. Those most likely to die this way included adults over age 65 (628), men (1,958), non-Hispanic whites (1,941), and non-Hispanic blacks (305).

Most of the deaths occurred in January and, among states, Nebraska had the highest CO-related death rate.

The report also noted that unintentional CO exposure causes about 15,000 emergency department visits a year in the U.S.

The authors called for increased public education, especially during the winter heating season, to help prevent deaths from CO poisoning. They also recommended establishment of a national surveillance system to monitor CO-related health outcomes. This information could help target public prevention efforts and reduce CO-related injury and death.


African Nations Facing Major Meningitis Outbreak: Red Cross

Fourteen African countries may be on the verge of the worst meningitis outbreak in a decade, Red Cross officials warned Thursday. The first indications of an epidemic could appear in February or March.

In preparation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is starting meningitis prevention programs in those countries, Agence France-Presse reported. These efforts include a four-month awareness campaign, and training about 25,000 volunteers in community-based first aid.

Meningitis is inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the central nervous system. Some forms are mild and resolve on their own, but other forms are deadly, AFP reported.

"Meningococcal meningitis is one of the most feared epidemic diseases in Africa because of its rapid onset, high fatality rates and long-term impacts such as brain damage and deafness affecting many survivors," said Jari Vainio, senior Red Cross public health officer.

Countries facing a possible meningitis outbreak are: Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo and Uganda.


Study Suggests Nervous System/PMS Link

A depressed nervous system may contribute to severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS), suggests a Japanese study in the journal BioPsychoSocial Medicine.

The researchers studied 62 women and found that those with PMS had decreased activity in the autonomic nervous system each month just before menstruation. This was most pronounced in women with the most severe PMS symptoms, BBC News reported.

The findings suggest that women with lower autonomic nervous system function may be more vulnerable to PMS symptoms, said researcher Dr. Tamaki Matsumoto.

The study results are interesting, but more research is needed before it could lead to a real breakthrough in PMS treatment, Professor Shaughn O'Brien, an obstetrics and gynecology expert at Keele University Medical School in the U.K., told BBC News.

"If the newly published work did prove to be clinically useful it has the potential at least to provide a relatively non-invasive method to distinguish women with PMS from those who have different non-hormonal types of mood disorder," O'Brien said.


High-Strain Jobs Linked to Absenteeism, Less Productivity

High levels of work strain lead to increased employee absenteeism and decreased productivity, according to a new Statistics Canada study that looked at data from a 2002 national health survey, CBC News reported.

Work strain takes into account pace of work, psychological effects, and control over decision-making.

Compared to men with low-strain jobs, those with high-strain jobs were 1.7 times more likely to have performed less work due to a long-term health condition, and were 1.5 times more likely to have taken at least one disability day in the two weeks prior to the survey, the study said.

Women were more likely (28 percent) than men (20 percent) to report having high-strain jobs, and about one-third of women reported being a bit or extremely stressed most work days, compared with about 29 percent of men, CBC News reported.

Shift workers (29 percent) were more likely to say they had high-strain jobs than other employees (20 percent).

"A supportive environment both at and away from work may help prevent reduced work activities by mitigating the effects of work-related stress," the study concluded.


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