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Health Highlights: May 6, 2002

Gene Linked to Epilepsy in Young People'Clot Crusher' Vacuums Blockages in Those Facing Angioplasty Hospitals Grappling With Nursing Shortages Hepatitis A Much More Widespread Than Originally Thought Fasting Before Surgery Often Overdone Antibiotic Shows Promise for Lou Gehrig's Disease More Docs Needed To Treat Growing Elderly Population: Alliance

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

Gene Linked to Epilepsy in Young People

Researchers at McGill University in Canada have discovered a gene that may provide a clue into why epilepsy strikes so many teenagers and young adults.

Mutations in the gene GABRA could cause juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, according to research done by Dr. Guy Rouleau and his team at McGillUniversity in Montreal.

The "classic" epilepsy symptoms begin in early adolescence, reports the BBC, and these include disorientation and seizures in varying degrees of severity.

The scientists identified the gene by studying 14 members of a a Canadian family. They found identical mutations of the gene in eight people.

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'Clot Crusher' Vacuums Blockages in Those Facing Angioplasty

Austrian scientists have made science fiction into science reality.

HealthDay reports that researchers have almost re-created a scene from the movie, "Fantastic Voyage," by successfully completing a trial in which they used a miniature device to break up and remove blood clots in patients about to have angioplasty.

The new procedure, which appears in the latest issue of Circulation, may improve the odds of survival for these heart patients, the researchers say.

Angioplasty and stenting are routine procedures in patients who have had a heart attack or unstable angina (chest pain). Angioplasty involves inserting, then inflating, a balloon-shaped catheter into the blocked artery. Stenting involves inserting a wire-mesh tube to keep the artery open.

The new procedure, called the X-sizer suction (a thrombectomy) removes the clot before the other procedures are performed and can make them much more effective, research has shown.

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Hospitals Grappling With Nursing Shortages

While hospitals scramble to try to fill the estimated 13 percent nursing jobs that remain open, nurses in precariously under-staffed departments say they are being overworked - - and it's the patients who are paying the ultimate price.

Many point to the death in January of a patient in the liver-transplant unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City as an extreme example of the consequences of nurses assigned to too many patients, reports the New York Times.

New York's Health Department concluded that the Mount Sinai unit "was inadequately staffed with nurses and physicians in charge of providing the necessary care for 34 transplant recipients and donors."

Representatives of American Nurses Association told the Times there are enough nurses out there, but the problem is that as many as 41 percent work outside of hospital settings.

But while states such as California are responding to the problem by adopting hospital nurse staffing requirements, some hospitals are against such laws, saying there's little they can do if nurses don't come to them seeking work.

Ultimately, some hospitals say such staffing regulations may force them to simply close units or cut services.

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Hepatitis A Much More Widespread Than Originally Thought

Ten percent disparities are easy to miss -- a dime off a dollar -- but a tenfold difference should be hard to overlook.

Yet, government scientists have found just such a gap between the reported incidence of hepatitis A in this country and the true figure, accroding to HealthDay.

A new mathematical projection of the habits of the liver virus has found the annual number of hepatitis A cases between 1980 and 1999 was probably 270,000 -- more than 10 times the average of 26,000 cases the government recorded each year during that period. Hepatitis A is spread primarily through bad hygene. There is no chronic (long-term) infection, and once you have had hepatitis A you can't get it again. About 15 percent of people infected will have prolonged or relapsing symptoms over a 6-9 month period.

Health officials say the undercount appears to be largely the result of undetected infections in young children who are a reservoir of virus to infect susceptible adults, and vaccinating these children should dry up the pool.

The CDC receives reports of some 26,000 cases of acute hepatitis A each year. The incidence is dropping by about 4.5 percent a year, thanks to improvements in sanitation.

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Fasting Before Surgery Often Overdone

Despite revised guidelines that say you don't have to fast for 12 hours before surgery, many doctors still tell their patients to go without food or drink for that long before an operation, reports HealthDay.

A report in the May issue of the American Journal of Nursing found that among 155 patients interviewed following surgery, almost half had been told to stop taking liquids for at least 12 hours before their surgery, and three-quarters had not eaten food for 12 hours or more.

However, under 1999 American Society of Anesthesiology guidelines, that kind of prolonged fasting is just not necessary.

The guidelines permit the intake of clear liquids up to two hours before elective surgery; a light breakfast six hours before the procedure; and a heavier meal if the surgery is eight hours away.

Doctors want patients to have empty stomachs before surgery to lower the risk of a potentially serious complication called pulmonary aspiration.

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Antibiotic Shows Promise for Lou Gehrig's Disease

A common antibiotic that already is showing promise in treating Huntington's disease is now being looked at as a possible means of slowing the similar nerve-degenerating condition known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Researchers say the antibiotic, minocycline, delayed the onset of Lou Gehrig's disease in mice and extended their lives by more than 10 days.

The research was published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, causes progressive paralysis in people by attacking nerve cells that control movement.

Minocycline has already been shown to prolong the lives of mice with a type of Huntington's disease and is currently being tested on humans.

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More Docs Needed To Treat Growing Elderly Population

With the number of Americans aged 65 and older expected to more than double to 70 million by the year 2030, health officials say there simply aren't enough health providers out there who are well-versed in issues pertaining to the elderly.

According to the Alliance for Aging Research, fewer than 9,000 of the country's 650,000 licensed physicians have met qualifying criteria for geriatrics and the number is expected to drop to as few as 6,100 by 2004, reports the Associated Press.

The nation should ideally have 20,000 geriatric-trained physicians to treat the current over-65 population, the alliance says.

The group is pushing Congress to better address the issue.

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