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Health Highlights: Sept. 21, 2009

U.S. Issues Alert About Cocaine Laced With Veterinary Drug Model Predicts Postnatal Depression Risk Sunshine, Vacation Linked to Lower Summer Death Rate Aspirin May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk: Study Patients in Vegetative State Able to Learn: Study Delinquents Misinterpret Facial Expressions: Study

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

U.S. Issues Alert About Cocaine Laced With Veterinary Drug

Doctors, substance abuse treatment centers and other public health officials need to be aware that cocaine laced with the veterinary anti-parasitic drug levamisole is a widespread problem, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said in a nationwide public health alert issued Monday.

To date, there have been about 20 confirmed or probable cases of a serious blood disorder called agranulocytosis among people who've used cocaine that contains levamisole. Two people have died, the agency said.

The official number of cases of affected people is expected to increase as more health professionals become aware of this issue, SAMHSA said.

Ingestion of cocaine laced with levamisole can cause a serious decrease in white blood cell levels, leading to a weakened immune system that's unable to fight off even minor infections. This means that people who used levamisole-contaminated cocaine can suffer rapidly developing, life-threatening infections, the agency said.


Model Predicts Postnatal Depression Risk

A model to predict postnatal depression is 80 percent accurate in the months after a woman gives birth, Spanish researchers say.

The researchers studied 1,397 women who gave birth and used a type of modeling they call artificial neuronal networks, United Press International reported.

The model includes a number of risk factors, including a mother's amount of social support, emotional changes during birth, neuroticism, mutations in the serotonin transport gene, and family history of psychiatric problems.

During the study, the researchers found that being older and working during pregnancy decreased a woman's risk of postnatal depression, UPI reported.

The study was published in the journal Methods of Information in Medicine.

"Now (the model) needs clinical evaluation, and for psychiatrists to start to test it directly on patients in order to study that true potential of these tools," lead author Salvador Tortajada, of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, said in a news release.


Sunshine, Vacation Linked to Lower Summer Death Rate

The health benefits of increased exposure to sunlight and vacations may explain why fewer people in northern countries die in late summer and early fall, according to a new study.

American and Greek researchers found that death rates are lowest in August in North America and Sweden, in September in the Mediterranean, and in March in Australia, CBC News reported.

The link between these times of the year and lower death rates may be due to the physiological effect of increased vitamin D production by the body due to sun exposure, coupled with the stress-lowering benefits of vacation, the study authors suggested.

Vitamin D "may have beneficial effects for cardiovascular disease, renal failure, certain malignant diseases, autoimmune disorders and infections, including influenza," wrote Dr. Matthew Falagas, of the Alfa Institute of Biomedical Sciences in Greece, and his colleagues, CBC News reported.


Aspirin May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk: Study

Taking aspirin daily can reduce the risk of colon cancer in people with a genetic susceptibility to the disease, according to European researchers who studied more than 1,000 people.

The participants had Lynch syndrome, a genetic mutation that puts them at increased risk for colon and other types of cancers. The syndrome causes about 5 percent of all colon cancer cases, the Associated Press reported.

For about four years, half the participants took aspirin daily while the others took a placebo. Six people in the aspirin group developed colon cancer, compared with 16 in the placebo group. The findings were presented Monday at a meeting of the European Cancer Organization.

"We are delighted" with the results, study leader John Burn of Newcastle University in Britain said in a news release, the AP reported. "All the more so because we stopped giving the aspirin after four years, yet the effect is continuing."

Further research to determine how aspirin fights colon cancer might lead to new treatments, the researchers said.


Patients in Vegetative State Able to Learn: Study

Patients in a persistent vegetative state may still be able to learn, according to British scientists who studied 22 patients with severe brain damage who didn't appear to have any signs of consciousness.

The researchers played a noise prior to delivering a puff of air to the patients' eyes and found that some of the patients learned to anticipate the puff, causing their eye muscles to twitch, BBC News reported.

"They were clearly anticipating the stimulus would come, so there is some kind of perception and from the point of view of the patient who is allegedly unconscious this could have profound implications," said study leader Dr. Tristan Bekinschtein of Cambridge University.

He said it had been believed that learning to link one stimulus with another was dependent on explicit awareness of the association, BBC News reported.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, may lead to tests to identify severely brain damaged patients who could recover, the researchers said.


Delinquents Misinterpret Facial Expressions: Study

Teen boys who run afoul of the law appear to have difficulty interpreting other peoples' facial expressions, Japanese researchers say.

The researchers showed photos of faces expressing six basic emotions to 24 young male offenders and found that they were more likely to mistake disgust for anger than peers who hadn't been in trouble with the law, BBC News reported.

The findings offer the first real evidence that young offenders may have difficulty telling the difference between disgust and anger in others. This type of misinterpretation may cause them to regard a situation as more hostile than it actually is, the researchers said.

"This bias towards misrecognising other emotions as anger is particularly significant because anger appears to play an important role in delinquency," said study leader Wataru Sato of Kyoto University, BBC News reported. "Taken together the data suggest that delinquents might be projecting their own heightened angry emotions onto others when they misperceive others' negative, but not hostile, emotional states as anger."

The study was published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.

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