Health Highlights: July 13, 2008

As Gas Prices Rise, U.S. Traffic Deaths Fall Famed Heart Surgeon Michael DeBakey Dead at 99 Is Your Grocer Involved in Meat Recall? USDA to Name Names U.S. Olympic Swimmer Has Testicular Cancer Twins' Deaths Not Caused by Overdose: Hospital Fewer Inhaling Secondhand Smoke: CDC

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

As Gas Prices Rise, U.S. Traffic Deaths Fall

A new study finds that the steep rise in the price of gas may be translating into fewer deaths on America's roads.

A study co-authored by Michael Morrisey of the University of Alabama and David Grabowski of Harvard Medical School found that for each 10 percent rise in gas prices between 1985 and 2006, there was a 2.3 percent decline in vehicular deaths. Young drivers fared even better: for every 10 percent rise in the price at the pump the decline in traffic deaths among drivers ages 15 to 17 has been 6 percent, and for ages 18 to 21, 3.2 percent.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Morrisey noted that the data used in the study only went to 2006, when gas was about $2.50 per gallon. With gas now reaching more than $4 a gallon, he expects a much greater drop in roadway deaths -- perhaps 1,000 fewer fatalities each month.

Morrisey noted that annual U.S. auto deaths now total between 38,000 and 40,000 per year, so a drop of 12,000 deaths would represent a third fewer fatalities annually.

"I think there is some silver lining here in higher gas prices in that we will see a public health gain," Grabowski told the AP.

Morrisey noted that the relation between gas prices and highway deaths can work in the opposite direction, too, with fatalities rising as gas gets cheaper. "When that happens we drive more, we drive bigger cars, we drive faster and fatalities are higher," he said.

One highway safety expert said the findings make sense.

"There are a whole bunch of factors that are influenced by higher gasoline prices -- teenagers don't have as much money, so you have the most risky drivers driving less; people are switching out of the bigger, older more dangerous vehicles, and people also know if they drive slower they're going to save gasoline," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Cener for Auto Safety, told AP.

The findings were presented last month at a meeting of the American Society of Health Economists in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last month. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Famed Heart Surgeon Michael DeBakey Dead at 99

Michael DeBakey, the man who first performed heart bypass surgery, died Friday night at Methodist Hospital in Houston at the age of 99 from natural causes, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

The renowned cardiovascular surgeon invented many devices to help the ailing human heart; while still in medical school in 1932, he designed the roller pump, which became a key part of the heart-lung machine and opened the door to open-heart surgery. He also was behind the first efforts to develop artificial hearts and heart pumps for those waiting for heart transplants.

In 2006, DeBakey even underwent a procedure that he himself had developed -- the surgical repair of a damaged aorta.

While at the Baylor College of Medicine, officials there said, he helped transform the school into a nationally respected medical institution.

"Dr. DeBakey's reputation brought many people into this institution, and he treated them all: heads of state, entertainers, businessmen and presidents, as well as people with no titles and no means," Ron Girotto, president of the Methodist Hospital System, told the AP.

Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. George Noon called his professional partner "the greatest surgeon of the 20th century," who "single-handedly raised the standard of medical care, teaching and research around the world."


Is Your Grocer Involved in Meat Recall? USDA Will Name Names

The next time there's a serious recall of meat or poultry in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will tell you if your local grocer had once sold any of the affected product.

USDA Secretary Edward Schafer announced the policy change Friday, following the nation's largest-ever recall of 143 million pounds of beef produced at a California slaughterhouse, MSNBC reported.

The policy is to take effect next month, Schafer said. Up till now, there's been no federal edict requiring the government to reveal where potentially tainted meat was sold.

While consumer groups applauded the move, they noted that it only applied to the most serious Class I recalls, thought to pose the greatest health risk.

"We're pleased that USDA will no longer keep consumers in the dark about recalled meat," said a news release from Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. "Up until now, when USDA announced a recall of contaminated meat, it would only tell the public the states where the product was distributed. The specific names and locations of stores that got the product -- the information that can actually help the consumer -- were kept confidential."

The California recall would not have been affected by the new rule, since it was designated a less-significant Class II recall, Consumers Union noted.


U.S. Olympic Swimmer Has Testicular Cancer

U.S. Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau has testicular cancer, but has been medically cleared for next month's games in Beijing, China, he told the Associated Press.

Shanteau, 24, said that although his doctors approved his participation in the games, they advised him to have surgery now. While he plans to postpone an operation until after the Olympics, he pledged to drop out of the games if there were any sign that the cancer was spreading.

The Georgia native told the wire service that the illness was diagnosed June 19 -- a week before Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. Shanteau wound up making the U.S. team in the 200-meter breaststroke.

"[The diagnosis] almost numbed me," he told the AP. "I'll remember that day for the rest of my life."

Shanteau said his doctors pronounced his cancer treatable and said it hadn't spread. He said he had heard from the agent who represents cyclist Lance Armstrong, who despite the same diagnosis went on to win seven straight Tour de France races.

"If I can have a fraction of the impact that [Armstrong has] had, just a tiny little bit, then I think what I'm going through will be good," Shanteau told the AP.


Twins' Deaths Not Caused by Overdose: Hospital

Two newborn twins who died at a Texas hospital after receiving an overdose of the blood thinner heparin did not appear to die as a direct result of the mishap, according to a spokesperson for Christus Spohn Hospital South in Corpus Christi cited by the Associated Press.

The hospital said it found no direct link between the deaths of twins Keith and Kaylynn Garcia and the overdose of heparin, which was used to flush intravenous lines used by the newborns. As many as 17 infants in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, including the Garcias, may have received the overdose. The mishap has been blamed on a mixing error by hospital pharmacists.

Keith Garcia, who died Tuesday, died of a blood infection called sepsis and from complications of being born premature, the AP said, citing a local newspaper report. A cause of death for the other twin, who died a day later, was not immediately revealed.

The infants' parents have received a judge's order that prevents the hospital from destroying any of the babies' records or accounts of the heparin overdose, the wire service said.


Fewer Inhaling Secondhand Smoke: CDC

Fewer nonsmokers are inhaling secondhand smoke than in years past, thanks to recent laws that prohibit smoking in offices, bars, restaurants and other public places, a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes.

A decline in the number of adult smokers to slightly below 20 percent also is a factor, the Associated Press reported.

Some 46 percent of nonsmokers had evidence of measurable blood nicotine levels between 1999 and 2004, compared with 84 percent of nonsmokers sampled in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Exposure to secondhand smoke can increase a nonsmoker's lung cancer risk by at least 20 percent and the risk of heart disease by at least 25 percent, the wire service said.

Despite the decline, study co-author Cinzia Marano said the numbers were still too high. "There is no safe level of exposure," Marano told the AP.


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