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Health Highlights: Oct. 27, 2008

Heart Disease, Infections, Cancer Top Global Killers: WHO Report Implantable Artificial Heart Nearly Ready for Human Tests Brains of People Who Commit Suicide Chemically Different: Study New Vaccine Offers Better Pneumococcal Disease Protection Earlier AIDS Drug Treatment Saves Lives: Study High Melamine Levels Found in Chinese Eggs Drugs Show Promise Against 'Superbug'

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

Heart Disease, Infections, Cancer Top Global Killers: WHO Report

Heart problems, infectious diseases and cancer are still the top three causes of death worldwide, says a World Health Organization report on the global burden of disease released Monday. Heart attacks and related problems cause 29 percent of deaths each year, infectious diseases 16.2 percent, and cancer 12.6 percent.

The heart disease death rate was virtually unchanged from 2002, while the rate for infectious diseases was down from 19.1 percent in 2002, the Associated Press reported.

Women die more often from heart disease than men -- 31.5 percent vs. 26.8 percent -- but that's because women tend to live to older ages than men, said study lead author Colin Mathers.

The 2004 data from 112 countries also showed that other leading causes of death are: respiratory infections, such as pneumonia (7.2 percent), respiratory diseases, such as asthma and allergies (6.9 percent); accidental injuries and drowning (6.6 percent); newborn health problems (5.4 percent); digestive diseases (3.5 percent); and suicide, murder and conflict (2.8 percent).

Overall in 2004, about 58.8 million people died worldwide. While most of those deaths involved people over age 60, nearly one in five deaths was a child younger than 5 years old, the AP reported.


Implantable Artificial Heart Nearly Ready for Human Tests

A fully implantable artificial heart will be ready for human clinical trials by 2011, according to European researchers who said the heart will help alleviate the worldwide shortage of heart transplant donors.

"We are moving from pure research to clinical applications. After 15 years of work, we are handing over to industry to produce an artificial heart usable by man," heart transplant specialist and project team leader Alain Carpentier told Agence France Presse.

The prosthetic heart, which is shaped like a real heart and has the same blood flow rhythms, is made from chemically treated animal tissues designed to avoid blood clotting or rejection by the recipient's immune system. The heart is meant for use in seriously ill patients for whom drug therapy, ventricular assistance or heart transplant have failed or aren't available, AFP reported.

Digital simulation and animal testing of the artificial heart have revealed no complications, Carpentier said.


Brains of People Who Commit Suicide Chemically Different: Study

Chemical differences in the brains of people who commit suicide have been identified by Canadian researchers who analyzed the brains of 20 dead people.

The 10 who had serious depressive disorder and committed suicide were found to have a higher rate of a process that affects behavior than the 10 who died suddenly from other causes, BBC News reported.

The rate of methylation -- which shuts down unwanted genes in a cell -- was nearly 10 times higher in the brains of those who committed suicide. The gene being shut down in the brains of the suicide victims was a chemical message receptor that plays a critical role in behavior regulation, the researchers said.

Environmental factors may play a role in the brain changes, said research leader Dr. Michael Poulter and colleagues, who added the study findings open up new areas of research that could lead to better treatments for depression and suicidal tendencies.

The study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.


New Vaccine Offers Better Pneumococcal Disease Protection

An experimental vaccine called Prevnar-13 appears to offer young children better protection against pneumococcal disease than the current vaccine Prevnar, according to the findings of four European studies released Monday. Both vaccines are made by Wyeth.

Compared to the current vaccine, the new vaccine is designed to protect against six more types of streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that can cause pneumococcal disease, which can lead to ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Data from the four studies appear to show that Prevnar-13 produces a strength of antibody response similar to that of Prevnar, and that both vaccines have similar levels of safety and tolerability. The studies also found that Prevnar-13 didn't react negatively with common immunizations received by children.

As of 2006, Prevnar had decreased the incidence of invasive pneumococcal disease in U.S. children age 5 and younger by nearly 80 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wyeth said it expects Prevnar-13 to increase prevention to 92 percent in the United States and Canada, The Journal reported.


Earlier AIDS Drug Treatment Saves Lives: Study

Drug treatments for AIDS patients should start sooner than current guidelines suggest, according to a study that included more than 8,000 American and Canadian patients.

Dr. Mari Kitahata, of the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues found that patients whose treatment was delayed until their immune system was badly damaged (T-cell count below 350) were nearly twice as likely to die within a few years than those whose treatment started earlier, the Associated Press reported.

The findings were presented Sunday at an infectious diseases conference in Washington, D.C.

The widely accepted approach has been to spare patients the side effects of AIDS drugs as long as possible. But AIDS specialists predict this study will lead to a change in practice, and several hundred thousand HIV-infected Americans who aren't taking AIDS drugs will be advised to start, the AP reported.

"The data are rather compelling that the risk of death appears to be higher if you wait than if you treat," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped fund the study.


High Melamine Levels Found in Chinese Eggs

Eggs imported from northeastern Chinese city of Dalian were found to have high levels of the toxic industrial chemical melamine, Hong Kong food safety officials reported Saturday. The levels were almost double the legal limit for food sold in Hong Kong.

Melamine-contaminted milk products have sickened more than 50,000 children in China and caused at least four deaths. The discovery about the eggs raises new concerns that a much larger variety of China-produced food products than previously believed may be contaminated with the chemical, which is used to make plastics and fertilizer, The New York Times reported.

In addition to being used to fake high protein content in dairy supplies, melamine may have been intentionally added to animal feed in China, said an article Sunday in the South China Morning Post. The newspaper said tainted feed for chickens, and possibly for fish and hogs, could result in poisonous meat and seafood, the Times reported.

Also over the weekend, there was news that melamine contamination may have affected more children than previously reported. A survey of homes in Beijing found that nearly a quarter (74,000) of the 300,000 families with children younger than 3 years old had a child who consumed melamine-tainted milk, health officials said Sunday.

The survey was conducted between late September and late October. Officials didn't say how many of the children included in the survey had fallen ill, the Times reported.


Drugs Show Promise Against 'Superbug'

Two experimental antibiotics show promise in fighting methicillin- resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a potentially deadly superbug that's common in hospitals and other health-care facilities.

U.S. drug maker Paratek said a phase II clinical trial of 234 patients found that its new class of antibiotic called PTK 0896 was 98 percent efficient in countering MRSA. Swiss drug maker Arpida said its Iclaprim drug cured MRSA infection in 92.3 percent of patients. The findings were presented Sunday at the annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents held in Washington, D.C., Agence France Presse reported.

But some experts remain pessimistic about efforts to combat MRSA, which causes more than 60 percent of all hospital infections in the United States. In 2005, MRSA infected 94,000 people in the United States and killed 19,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Michael Scheld, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, told AFP that "there is almost nothing in the pipeline now ... We as clinicians have nothing that we can obtain to treat these multidrug-resistant organisms for probably five to 10 years."

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