Health Highlights: July 9, 2008

Texas Infant Dies After Heparin Overdose; Drug's Role Unclear Controlled Drugs Easily Obtained Online Without Prescription U.S. Wants to Snuff Out Federal Sanction for 'Light' Cigarettes Hospital Agency Takes Aim at Workers Who Behave Badly Agency Chief Backs Testing of Unproven Autism Treatment

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

Texas Infant Dies After Heparin Overdose; Drug's Role Unclear

A newborn baby has died at a Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital after receiving an overdose of the blood thinner heparin, the local Caller-Times newspaper reported Wednesday.

Whether the drug played a role in the infant's death is under investigation, the newspaper said. The child, already seriously ill and in neonatal intensive care, was one of as many as 17 newborns in the unit who received the overdose of the drug.

The infant died Tuesday morning, said a spokesman for Christus Spohn Hospital. The drug was applied routinely to flush IV tubes, to prevent blood clots from forming. Hospital workers discovered the overdose based on lab results for the infants.

The Caller-Times said the overdose, thought to be a result of a mixing error at the hospital's pharmacy, may have led to the infants receiving up to 100 times the recommended dosage of heparin.

Two members of the hospital's pharmacy have taken voluntary leave pending the hospital's investigation of the incident, the newspaper reported. The hospital said it had notified the Texas Department of Health Services and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


Controlled Drugs Easily Obtained Online Without Prescription

Powerful addictive drugs -- known as controlled substances because of their potential for abuse -- are easily ordered online, and in most cases without a prescription, a new Columbia University study finds.

Of 365 Web sites that sold controlled substances regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), 85 percent of the sites did not require a prescription, according to an Associated Press analysis of the study.

Examples of drugs that could be purchased this way included the potent painkillers morphine and oxycodone, and amphetamine stimulants.

The study found that the number of sites that sold controlled substances actually fell 37 percent from last year's analysis. The researchers cited efforts by law enforcement to crack down on illegal online drug sales.

About 80 percent of online prescriptions are for controlled substances, according to DEA statistics cited by the wire service. By contrast, these same drugs account for just 11 percent of sales at traditional pharmacies, the DEA said.

The House of Representatives is considering a bill to ban the sale of controlled substances online without a prescription. The Senate has already passed the measure.


U.S. Wants to Snuff Out Federal Sanction for 'Light' Cigarettes

Tobacco makers would no longer be able to cite U.S. government approval for "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes under a rule change proposed by the Federal Trade Commission, USA Today reported.

The agency said it wants to end a 1966 policy that allows cigarette makers to mention tar and nicotine amounts "per FTC method," the newspaper reported Wednesday.

In seeking to "clarify the FTC's position," associate director Mary Engle said "this test method does not have our stamp of approval." The new proposal explains that in 1966, it was thought that the amount of tar in a cigarette could affect a smoker's risk of cancer," USA Today reported.

But the agency now says that people who smoke "light" cigarettes tend to take bigger puffs or inhale more frequently to gain the same effect as regular cigarettes. So the agency is prepared to recommend that consumers not use the amount of tar or nicotine in a cigarette as a measure of a safer smoke.

The public has until Aug. 12 to comment on the proposal.


Hospital Agency Takes Aim at Workers Who Behave Badly

Hospital employees who use foul language and other bad behaviors against their colleagues pose a serious threat to patient safety, a U.S. accrediting agency says.

The Joint Commission is proposing new standards that require more than 15,000 accredited organizations to create a code of conduct that defines and manages unacceptable practices. These include ignoring questions; insulting, threatening or intimidating behavior; and speaking in a condescending way, MSNBC reported Wednesday.

These behaviors affect employee morale and could increase the likelihood of medical errors, the commission said.

An industry survey of some 2,000 clinicians found that more than 90 percent said they had been a victim of condescending language. And nearly 60 percent reported being verbally abused or encountering threatening body language, MSNBC said.

Set to take effect Jan. 1, the proposed conduct standards would affect hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, laboratories, ambulatory care facilities and behavioral health facilities nationwide.


Agency Chief Backs Testing of Unproven Autism Treatment

The director of U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, pressured by the anxious parents of children with autism, is advocating testing chelation therapy as a treatment for the little-understood neurological disorder, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Chelation therapy aims to purge the body of heavy metals. Its use in children with autism is based on the unproven notion that mercury in the vaccines is responsible for cases of the disorder, the AP reported. With the exception of certain flu shots, mercury hasn't been used in pediatric vaccines since 2001.

NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel told the wire service that he supports testing the therapy on autistic children. "So many moms have said, 'It's saved my kids,'" he said.

Several thousand children are already believed to be using the therapy, despite its fringe status. The drugs are relatively easy to get, some being marketed as dietary supplements, the AP reported.

Safety concerns over chelation have postponed the government testing for now, Insel said. One of the drugs used in the process, called DMSA, can have adverse effects including low white blood cell count and rashes. Research also has shown that the process may shift metals from elsewhere in the body to the central nervous system, the AP reported.

In adults, chelation has proven ineffective unless there are high concentrations of metals in the blood, the wire service said.

Austim describes a variety of disorders that affect victims' ability to communicate and interact. There is no proven cure.

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