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Health Highlights: April 24, 2004

Reading Programs Increase Brain Connections, Study SaysChina Reports 1st SARS Death Since JulySmaller Hearts Can Be Used in Transplants, Researcher Says Blood Test May Predict Cancer Risk States Allowed to Work Together for Lower Medicaid Drug Prices Anti-Soft Drink Campaign Reduces Childhood Obesity

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

Reading Programs Increase Brain Connections, Study Says

There may actually be a physical relationship between intensive programs to help poor readers and the brain's ability to create new connections to improve reading skills.

The Associated Press reports that researchers from the Yale School of Medicine say that MRI scanners tracking children's brains showed permanent reading improvement after they had gone through an intensive reading program.

One measure of progress was observing the poor readers catch up with their classmates after they had completed the program, the wire service reports. But the key in determining success was whether any physiological change had actually taken place in the students' brains.

The study used 77 public school students between the ages of six and nine, 49 of which were classified as poor readers. Those students who were part of the intensive reading program not only improved their performance, but also had evidence that their brain patterns had changed.

The MRI brain scan revealed new pathways in the brain in areas that are known to relate to reading skills.

Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, who worked with his wife on the study, told the wire service: "We know that at least one year after intervention ended that the brain systems for reading are intact and look the same as for readers who have no problem reading."

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China Reports 1st SARS Death Since July

The Chinese Health Ministry confirmed Friday the country's first death from SARS since last July. It also acknowledged a diagnosed SARS case and two other suspected cases.

The World Health Organization says that a research facility has been shut down where the cases were said to have been discovered.

"Chinese authorities have reported a diagnosis of clinically confirmed SARS coronavirus infection in two of these persons," WHO says on its Web site. "These are the 20-year-old nurse in Beijing, reported yesterday, who remains in intensive care, and a 26-year-old female laboratory researcher, from Anhui Province. The fourth person is a 31-year-old male laboratory researcher who also worked at the Beijing virology institute."

In response, the government said it would start disinfecting public buildings, and take the temperatures of travelers at all ports of entry, to try to prevent an epidemic.

The government of Taiwan Friday warned people against making unnecessary trips to Beijing and Anhui, according to Agence France-Presse.

SARS, a potentially fatal respiratory virus, first emerged in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong late in 2002. It then spread to Beijing, Hong Kong, and other countries -- most of them in East Asia -- infecting about 8,100 people and killing nearly 800.

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Smaller Hearts Can Be Used in Transplants, Researcher Says

The shortage of hearts for transplant operations could be eased by using hearts smaller than the ones that had previously been required, according to new research by the head of Temple University School of Medicine's heart transplant team.

A medical team led by Dr. Satoshi Furukawa, associate professor of surgery at Temple University School of Medicine, found "no significant differences between the growth and adaptability of undersized hearts to normal-sized donor hearts in heart transplant recipients."

According to a news release from the Temple University School of Medicine, the study was conducted over a 10-year period and countered a widely-held belief that a heart transplant's success could occur only if the donor heart matched the size of the patient.

"In our study, we found that undersized hearts adapted by increasing in mass. Further, there were no significant differences in function, capacity or survival rates between those patients who received undersized hearts and those who received normal-sized hearts. These findings suggest to us that the heart donor pool could be expanded by including undersized hearts," the news release quotes Fururkawa as saying.

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Blood Test May Predict Cancer Risk

A British study says doctors may someday be able to use a simple blood test to identify people at risk of developing cancer.

Researchers at Christie Hospital in Manchester reviewed 21 studies that offer evidence that levels of certain hormones are higher in people with some cancers, BBC News Online reports.

Testing for these hormones could help identify people at risk of cancer, concluded the study, published in the journal The Lancet.

These hormones can be measured using simple and inexpensive laboratory tests. The researchers said there's huge potential in using such testing to reduce common cancers.

However, some experts said much more work is required before a simple blood test could be used to identify cancer risk in people, BBC News Online reports.

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States to Work Together for Lower Medicaid Drug Prices

A number of states have just gained a lot more bargaining power in their negotiations for better prices from drug makers.

The White House approved on Thursday plans by five states to combine their purchasing power to push for larger discounts on prescription drugs for more than 900,000 Medicaid recipients, The New York Times reported.

The five states -- Alaska, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont -- could save more than $12 million in drug costs this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It's reported that Hawaii, Minnesota and Tennessee are lined up to join the pool and that other states are likely to follow them.

This is the first time in the history of Medicaid that states have been allowed to work together in this way to bargain for lower drug prices.

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Anti-Soft Drink Campaign Reduces Childhood Obesity

A school program designed to discourage students from consuming soft drinks seemed effective in reducing obesity among the children, says a study in the British Medical Journal.

The one-year "ditch the fizz" program encouraged elementary students to reduce their intake of both diet and sweetened soft drinks. This is the first study to offer evidence that such programs are effective in reducing childhood obesity.

There was a 0.2 percent decrease in the number of overweight and obese children among the students taking part in the program, compared to a 7.5 percent increase in a control group of children who didn't take part in the program, the Associated Press reported.

Children in the program reduced their consumption of soft drinks by 0.6 glasses per day by the end of the study year, while students in the control group increased their soft drink consumption by 0.2 glasses per day.

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