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Health Highlights: March 1, 2011

Many Colorectal Cancer Deaths in U.S. Could be Prevented: Report No Extra Health Risk From Menthol Cigarettes: FDA Panel DEA Imposes Restrictions on Fake Pot States May be Allowed Earlier Opt-Out From Health Care Law: Obama Gene Therapy Leads to HIV-Resistant Blood Cells U.S. Health Care Quality Slowly Improving, Disparities Persist: Reports

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

Many Colorectal Cancer Deaths in U.S. Could be Prevented: Report

Many of the 141,000 colorectal cancer cases and 49,000 deaths from the disease expected in the United States this year could be prevented, says an American Cancer Society report released Tuesday.

The number of colorectal cancer cases and deaths could be reduced by increasing access to and use of screening tests and by applying existing knowledge about prevention of the disease.

The Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2011-2013 report was released during National Colon Cancer Awareness Month.

It says that:

  • Nearly half of Americans 50 and older do not get screened according to guidelines.
  • Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer death.
  • The lifetime risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer is about five percent for both men and women in the U.S.
  • Black men and women have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and death rates in the U.S. -- 20 percent and 45 percent higher, respectively, than in whites.
  • Colorectal cancer rates in the U.S. vary widely by geographic area.

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No Extra Health Risk From Menthol Cigarettes: FDA Panel

Menthol cigarettes don't pose a greater health risk to smokers than unflavored cigarettes, according to a preliminary report from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel.

However, they did say that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive, Bloomberg News reported.

"Menthol provides an unmistakable sensory experience -- the minty taste, cooling sensation and throat irritation or impact," the panelists wrote. "The taste and odor are pleasurable for menthol cigarette smokers and may reinforce smoking behavior."

Their comments are contained in two draft chapters of a report posted online by the FDA. The final report must be submitted by March 23, Bloomberg reported.

The advisory panel will recommend whether or not the FDA should ban menthol cigarettes. Though not bound by law, the FDA typically follows the advice of its expert panels.

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DEA Imposes Restrictions on Fake Pot

As of Tuesday, certain types of "fake pot" that give users a marijuana-like high will be temporarily restricted, says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The new rules target five chemicals commonly used in smokable herb blends sold in smoke shops, convenience stores and online, Bloomberg News reported.

The DEA says there has been a "rapid and significant increase in abuse of these substances in the United States," and the restrictions are meant to avoid "an imminent hazard to the public safety."

Fake pot, which has become especially popular among teens and young adults, have been marketed as legal because the active ingredients are different from those in real marijuana, Bloomberg reported.

In 2010, the use of these substances led to more than 3,500 calls to U.S. poison control centers, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

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States May be Allowed Earlier Opt-Out From Health Care Law: Obama

In what's seen as a major concession to critics of the new health care law, President Barack Obama said Monday that he would support moving up the timetable in which states may opt out of the law.

In a speech at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, Obama said he would approve of permitting states to opt out of the new law by 2014 if they could offer health care coverage for as many people as they would under the law and not increase the deficit, the Washington Post reported.

Under the original law, states had to wait until 2017 to opt out of the Affordable Care Act.

The earlier opt-out provision was first proposed by a bipartisan group of senators, the Post reported.

"I think that's a reasonable proposal, I support it," Obama told the governors. "It will give you more flexibility more quickly, while still guaranteeing the American people reform. If your state can create a plan that covers as many people as affordably and comprehensively as the Affordable Care Act does - without increasing the deficit - you can implement that plan. And we'll work with you to do it."

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Gene Therapy Leads to HIV-Resistant Blood Cells

Many scientists were thrilled four years ago when an AIDS patient in Germany was apparently cured after receiving blood cells from a donor with natural immunity to HIV.

To determine whether this feat could be safely replicated, a group of researchers in California used genetic engineering to infuse billions of HIV-resistant blood cells into six male patients. On Monday, they announced that the new HIV-resistant cells were flourishing -- meaning that the men's bodies were now making some of their own HIV-resistant cells.

The new cells lack the protein receptor -- also known as a "docking station" -- called CCR5, through which HIV invades the T-cells that are major players in the human immune system. A handful of people are missing both copies of the CCR5 gene and so appear completely resistant to HIV.

The company behind the tests is a California biotechnology company called Sangamo BioSciences Inc.

"For the first time, people are beginning to think about a cure," Dr. John Zaia, head of the government panel that oversees gene therapy experiments, told reporters during a news conference announcing the results.

But, Dr. Jacob Lalezari, director of Quest Clinical Research of San Francisco, who led the first test of the engineered cells for the company and his colleagues at the University of California in San Francisco and Los Angeles, told the Associated Press that talk of a cure was "way overstated."

"It's an overreach of the data" to suggest that the results so far are a possible cure. There are a lot of people out there with hopes and dreams around the C-word," so it's important to be cautious, he said.

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U.S. Health Care Quality Slowly Improving, Disparities Persist: Reports

Health care quality in the United States is improving by a rate of about 2.3 percent per year, but gaps based on race, socioeconomic status and other factors remain high, according to federal government reports released Monday.

The findings are based on an analysis of more than 200 health care measures in categories of quality such as effectiveness, patient safety, timeliness, efficiency, access, care coordination and focus on the patient.

Improvements were seen in a number of categories, with the greatest advances in treatment of acute illness or injuries. For example, the number of heart attack patients who had procedures to open up blocked heart arteries within 90 minutes improved from 42 percent in 2005 to 81 percent in 2008, said the 2010 National Healthcare Quality Report and National Healthcare Disparities Report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

In addition, modest gains were achieved in rates of screening for preventive services and child and adult immunization. But no improvements were seen in measures of lifestyle modifications such as preventing or reducing obesity, smoking cessation and substance abuse.

The reports also said that few disparities in quality of care are improving and almost no disparities in access to care are decreasing. Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives received worse care compared to whites for about 40 percent of core measures, Asians received worse care than whites for about 20 percent of core measures, and Hispanics received worse care than whites for about 60 percent of core measures. Poor people received worse care than rich people for about 80 percent of core measures.

Looking at the 22 measures of access to health care services covered by the report, 60 percent showed no gains and 40 percent declined. Americans reported barriers to care on average about one-fifth of the time. This included three percent saying they couldn't get or had to wait for prescription drugs to 60 percent saying their usual care provider wasn't available on weekends or at night.

"All Americans should have access to high-quality, appropriate and safe health care that helps them achieve the best possible health, and these reports show that we are making very slow progress toward that goal," said AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy, said in an agency news release. "We need to ramp up our overall efforts to improve quality and focus specific attention on areas that need the greatest improvement."

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