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Health Highlights: Jan. 16, 2008

Circumcision Rates Vary Across U.S. FDA Approves Blood Sealant for Surgery U.S. Undergoing Baby Boomlet? Probiotics Prompt Gut Changes: Study No Evidence That Fish Oil Benefits Heart Patients: Researchers

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

Circumcision Rates Vary Across U.S.

Male circumcision rates vary widely across the United States, likely due to differences in insurance coverage and regional variations in racial, ethnic and immigrant population, says the latest News and Numbers report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Immigrants from Latin America and other parts of the world where circumcision is less common can affect regional circumcision rates in the U.S., the report noted

The agency's analysis of data on hospital-based circumcisions in 2005 found that:

  • About 31 percent of newborn boys in the West were circumcised, compared with 56 percent in the South, 65 percent in the Northeast, and 75 percent in the Midwest.
  • Nationwide, about 56 percent of newborn boys (1.2 million) were circumcised. The national rate, which peaked at 65 percent in 1980, has remained relatively stable for the past decade.
  • About 60 percent of circumcisions were billed to private insurance and 31 percent to Medicaid. About 4 percent were uninsured.

Circumcision, the removal of foreskin from the penis, is usually performed for cultural, religious or cosmetic reasons, rather than for medical reasons, the report said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations say there's insufficient evidence that routine circumcision is medially necessary. However, some research suggests that circumcision may offer health benefits, including decreased risk of penile cancer and HIV infection, and a lower chance of urinary tract infection in newborns, the AHRQ said.

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FDA Approves Blood Sealant for Surgery

A liquid fibrin sealant to help control bleeding during general surgery has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Fibrin is a protein that encourages blood to clot. The sealant, Evicel, is applied to small vessels to stem oozing blood.

Evicel contains two proteins, fibrinogen and thrombin, that are involved in the production of fibrin. The proteins are derived from human plasma, which is screened and tested for blood-borne infections. "While the potential risk for infectious disease transmission is remote, it cannot be eliminated," the FDA said in a prepared statement.

Evicel's safety and effectiveness were established in clinical studies involving 135 patients. Adverse reactions included anemia, abdominal abscess, blockage of the small intestine, and loss of urinary bladder function.

Evicel's predecessor, Crosseal, was approved in 2003 for use during liver surgery. The sealant became Evicel last May when the FDA sanctioned its use during vascular surgery. The product is made by an Israeli company, OMRIX Biopharmaceuticals.

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U.S. Undergoing Baby Boomlet?

The nearly 4.3 million children born in the United States in 2006 were the most born in a single year since 1961, suggesting the country is experiencing a small, brief baby "boomlet," the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. fertility rate (the number of children the average woman is expected to have in her lifetime) reached 2.1, higher than any country in continental Europe, as well as Australia, Canada and Japan.

Decreased contraceptive use, reduced access to abortion, poor education and poverty may be among the reasons for the increased number of births in the U.S., experts cited by the wire service said.

They also suggested that Americans may regard children more favorably than many other Westernized countries, the AP reported.

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Probiotics Prompt Gut Changes: Study

Foods that contain "friendly" probiotic bacteria do have a tangible effect on the body, says a U.K. study in the journal Molecular Systems Biology.

Imperial College London researchers gave probiotic drinks to mice, then noted changes in blood and urine levels of several chemicals that play key roles in body processes, BBC News reported.

The study authors also found that probiotics may change how the body digests fat.

Some experts don't believe that probiotics can change gut microbes, noted study leader Professor Jeremy Nicholson.

"Our study shows that probiotics can have an effect and they interact with the local ecology and talk to other bacteria," Nicholson told BBC News. "We're still trying to understand what the changes they bring about might mean, in terms of overall health, but we have established that introducing 'friendly' bacteria can change the dynamics of the whole population of microbes in the gut."

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No Evidence That Fish Oil Benefits Heart Patients: Researchers

There's no firm evidence that fish oil supplements -- recommended by many experts and organizations for heart health -- actually benefit heart patients, says a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Lead author David Jenkins, a professor of medicine and nutritional science at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues analyzed three large studies that looked at heart patients and fish oil supplements.

One of the studies found that fish oil was beneficial, one found that fish oil had no effect, and one found that fish oil actually left heart patients in worse shape, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

Patients who are already taking beta blockers and other anti-heart-attack medicines seem to derive the most benefit from fish-oil supplements, but there's no evidence that fish oil alone is a proven preventive, Jenkins said.

He recommended more large studies to examine exactly what effects fish oil may have on heart patients, the Globe and Mail reported.

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