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Health Highlights: Jan. 28, 2002

U.S Dental Picture Nothing to Smile About Marijuana Drug Does Little for Cancer Patients' Appetite Nicotine Patch OK for Pregnant Women Dalai Lama to Be Released From Hospital Gene Linked to Rare Form of Epilepsy Britannia's New Ice Scream

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

U.S Dental Picture Nothing to Smile About

Americans need to brush up on their dental care.

That's the conclusion of a new national report that found at least a third of Americans fail to see a dentist even once a year.

The report also found that tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease -- half of first-graders already have a cavity-- and that large swaths of the country don't have fluoridated drinking water, considered one of the most important health advances of the 20th century, according to an Associated Pressreport.

Two years after the U.S. Surgeon General labeled Americans' bad oral health a "silent epidemic,'' the nation gets an overall "C," says Oral Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group that wrote the report using government data to assess each state.

But there are small signs of progress. Some states are raising the fees they pay dentists for treating Medicaid patients, key to getting poor children dental care. Most states have hired dental directors to push improvements locally. And the government is developing a national oral health plan -- with a string of public meetings across the country starting in San Diego March 5 -- to spread the word that your mouth is a mirror to your overall health.

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Marijuana Drug Does Little for Cancer Patients' Appetites

Marijuana use may be known for giving users the "munchies," but a drug derived from cannabis does little to increase the appetites or boost weight gain among patients with advanced cancer, the BBC reports.

In a large U.S.-Canada study involving 469 cancer patients, researchers with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the North Central Cancer Treatment Group compared megestrol acetate, the standard drug for treating weight and appetite loss in cancer patients, with dronabinol, a drug derived from marijuana.

They found that 75 percent of patients on the standard treatment showed improved appetite, while only 49 percent of those taking dronabinol saw improvement. In addition, 11 percent of the patients on the standard drug gained more than 10 percent of their baseline weight, compared with only 3 percent of those on dronabinol.

The research was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology

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Nicotine Patch OK For Pregnant Women

A new study has found that nicotine patches are safe for both baby and mom, particularly during the third trimester, which is when most smoking-related complications occur, HealthDay reports.

The small but significant study involved 21 pregnant women who, despite advice from their doctors, continued to smoke at least 15 cigarettes a day into their third trimester. The women were offered a nicotine patch on the first of a four-day hospital stay, and they continued to use the therapy at home for eight consecutive weeks.

The final result: All the babies had normal birth weights. However, all the babies were also born a few weeks premature. The researchers admit the study did not take into account any damage that may have occurred during the first two trimesters when the women were still smoking. Only eight of the 21 women -- 38 percent -- were smoke-free at the time of delivery.

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Dalai Lama to Be Released From Hospital

The Dalai Lama is expected to be released from a Bombay hospital today, a day after being admitted, the Associated Press reports.

The 66-year-old Tibetan spiritual leader had canceled a major prayer ceremony for thousands of Tibetan Buddhists late last week because he reportedly was not able to endure the five hours of sitting still the ceremony required.

After doctors reported feeling a lump in his stomach, the Dalai Lama was flown from the eastern India state of Bihar and admitted to Bombay's Lilavati Hospital yesterday for testing.

Aside from being angry at reports that he had a tumor, the Dalai Lama is said to be recovering well, hospital officials said. He has reportedly been given a course of antibiotics to follow.

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Gene Linked to 'Sound Seizures' Identified

Researchers have identified a gene that causes a rare form of epilepsy in which patients experience sound hallucinations before their seizures, reports HealthDay.

A report in the February issue of Nature Genetics reveals that mutations in the leucine-rich, glioma-inactivated 1 gene cause a rare form of the disorder known as autosomal-dominant partial epilepsy with auditory features.

The findings open many new avenues for research, say the researchers, because unlike the eight previous genes linked to autosomal dominant forms of epilepsy, this gene is not involved in moving chemical signals in and out of brain cells.

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Britain's New Ice Scream

Protecting the ozone layer has spawned a chilling new menace to the English countryside -- abandoned refrigerators.

Residents say unsightly dumps of old appliances have sprouted across the land since people began secretly abandoning them in fields after European environmental regulations took effect Jan. 1 making it illegal to discard the ozone-depleting foam insulation from fridges and freezers. Many people think illegal dumping is the only option, since the equipment needed to destroy the foam in compliance with European Union rules isn't available in England, reports the Associated Press.

"It has completely escalated,'' said Bob Partridge, a farmer who found 50 discarded refrigerators on his land near Padstow in Cornwall, southwest England.

The EU rules make it illegal to discard the foam because it contains chlorofluorocarbons that damage the ozone layer. Crushing old refrigerators for scrap -- the traditional disposal method -- releases CFCs into the air. Refrigerators now must be crushed in enclosed "fridge eaters'' that extract the CFCs so they can be destroyed. But Britain doesn't have any machines to deal with the 2.5 million refrigerators Britons throw away each year.

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