Health Highlights: Sept. 11, 2007

Many Countries Have Food Nutrition Logo Systems U.S. Falling Short on Flu Pandemic Preparedness New Clues to How Antioxidants Fight Cancer U.S. Panel Calls for Enhanced Safety of Imported Goods Depression Common in Pregnant Women Who Smoke High Fetal Testosterone Levels Linked to Autistic Traits

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

Many Countries Have Food Nutrition Logo Systems

While a number of countries have established standardized food label logo systems that provide consumers with quick information about the nutritional value of food products, there's no such system in the United States.

That's resulted in a patchwork of nutritional labeling information systems that experts fear may cause consumers even more confusion when they're looking for healthy eating choices, the Associated Press reported.

In what it says is the first step toward consideration of establishing a national system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at a meeting Monday invited food companies, medical experts and other organizations to share their views on how easy-to-understand logos on food packaging may help improve public health.

Even if it eventually does establish a national system, the FDA says it would be voluntary.

While the FDA studies the issue, a number of U.S.-based food companies are taking action on their own. For example, next month, Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. breakfast cereal boxes will start to carry symbols that summarize nutritional information, the AP reported.

The Hannaford Bros. supermarket chain in New England also uses a zero to three-star system to rate the nutritional quality of more than 25,000 food items on its shelves.


U.S. Falling Short on Flu Pandemic Preparedness

A lack of training and testing by federal agencies is hampering the United States' ability to prepare for a potential influenza pandemic, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Monday.

The GAO noted that a number of federal agencies have overlapping responsibilities that aren't clearly defined, the Associated Press reported. Since the Bush administration's bird flu plan was released in May 2006, there have been no national pandemic exercises involving the multiple federal agencies that would respond to such a crisis. These types of exercises would demonstrate which agencies understand their responsibilities, the GAO said.

It's alarming that key federal leadership roles haven't been adequately defined or tested, said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He was one of the lawmakers who requested the GAO report, the AP reported.

"It is vital to resolve questions of turf, responsibility, and performance in advance, rather than in the heat of an actual pandemic," Waxman said.

The secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services need to conduct thorough response exercises for pandemic influenza, the GAO recommended.


New Clues to How Antioxidants Fight Cancer

Antioxidants such as vitamin C fight cancer by removing free radicals that promote the protein HIF-1 needed by tumor cells to convert sugar to energy without using oxygen, according to a U.S. study in the journal Cancer Cell.

This unexpected finding -- that vitamin C and other antioxidants may destabilize a tumor's ability to grow in oxygen-starved conditions -- is new. It was previously believed that antioxidants prevented cancer growth by removing free radical molecules that damage DNA, United Press International reported.

"The potential anti-cancer benefits of antioxidants have been the driving force for many clinical and preclinical studies," lead author Dr. Chi Dang, of the Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. "By uncovering the mechanism behind antioxidants, we are now better suited to maximize their therapeutic use."

The researchers noted that this is preliminary study conducted in mice, and people shouldn't rush out to buy large quantities of antioxidants in hopes of preventing cancer.


U.S. Panel Calls for Enhanced Safety of Imported Goods

The U.S. government needs to improve methods of identifying risks and preventing problems associated with imported goods before they reach the United States. That's the conclusion of a new report that said increasing inspections once products reach the country would not adequately improve safety, the Associated Press reported.

The report was released Monday by an advisory commission established in July by President George W. Bush in response to a number of recalls of products made in China, including dog food, toothpaste and toys.

In its first report to the president, the commission said the federal government must work more closely with the private sector and improve its sharing of information in order to ensure that products are safe before they're imported into the country, the AP reported.

The commission did not provide details on additional resources that would be required but is expected to provide recommendations on spending within 60 days.


Depression Common in Pregnant Women Who Smoke

Many pregnant women who smoke suffer from depression, says a Columbia University study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology. Depression can make it even more difficult to quit smoking, experts say.

The study of 1,500 pregnant women found that 22 percent smoked at some point during their pregnancy and about 12 percent were classified as nicotine-dependent, the Associated Press reported.


The study said that pregnant smokers were typically poor, less educated and had less access to health care than nonsmokers. The researchers also found that about 30 percent of pregnant smokers and 50 percent of those who were nicotine-dependent had some kind of mental health disorder. In the majority of cases, the disorder was depression.

Overall, pregnant smokers were about three times more likely to have a mental health disorder than pregnant nonsmokers, the AP reported.


High Fetal Testosterone Levels Linked to Autistic Traits

High levels of the male sex hormone testosterone in fetuses are associated with an increased risk of developing autistic traits in childhood, says a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England.

But the researchers said it isn't clear whether high testosterone levels cause autistic traits or are a byproduct of those traits. The researchers also emphasized that their study only found a link between testosterone and autistic traits, but no direct link to autism itself, BBC News reported.

The eight-year study compared the development of 253 children to the levels of testosterone they were exposed to in the womb. The researchers concluded that fetal testosterone levels accounted for about 20 percent of the variability in scores on a questionnaire filled out by the children's mothers. The questionnaire helps assess the number of autistic traits in children.

"This is the first time autistic traits have been linked to levels of fetal testosterone, measured in the womb using amniocenteses," noted study co-author Professor Simon Baren-Cohen, BBC News reported.

The findings were presented at the BA Festival of Science in York. The researchers are planning another study to examine if there's a direct link between testosterone levels in fetuses and autism.


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