Health Highlights: April 29, 2004
SUVs Cited in Highest Traffic Death Rate Since 1990 Medicare Urges Waiting Before Choosing Drug Card Spinach May Offer Blindness Treatment China Confirms 2 More SARS Cases 41 Million Americans Have Pre-DiabetesDrug-Resistant Gonorrhea Affecting Gay Men
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:
SUVs Cited in Highest Traffic Death Rate Since 1990
U.S. government figures show that the number of fatalities in vehicle crashes was the highest since 1990, and officials said the increasing number of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) was partly to blame.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 43,220 deaths on the nation's highways in 2003, up from 42,815 in 2002.
Fatalities in passenger cars declined, but deaths in SUVs increased 11 percent, according to NHTSA figures. Fifty-five percent of the deaths in SUVs were the result of rollover crashes, which "was partially accounted for by increases in SUV sales," a government statement said. Motorcycle fatalities rose 11 percent.
Overall, the number of injuries declined 1 percent in 2003, bolstered by a 2.8 percent decrease in passenger cars. However, injuries from SUVs and other light trucks, like vans and pickups, rose 2.3 percent.
The NHTSA report found that 58 percent of those killed were not wearing safety belts. The number of alcohol-related deaths in 2003 was unchanged.
Medicare Urges Waiting Before Choosing Drug Card
Medicare officials are urging senior citizens to wait a few days or weeks before choosing a drug discount card because they expect continued competition that would result in falling prices.
USA Today reported that the government has begun pushing a Web site and a toll-free telephone number (800-MEDICARE) to help seniors decide whether to sign up for the program and which of the 73 available cards is best.
On the site, seniors will learn how much the cards will cost, and there will also be card-to-card comparisons of prescription drug prices, the paper reported.
Those comparisons may prompt card sponsors to drop their prices to attract more customers. "We may well see some downward changes over the next couple of weeks," Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told USA Today.
Spinach May Offer Blindness Treatment
Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee are hoping to come up with a garden-variety treatment for blindness: spinach.
New Scientist reports that the researchers plan to add light-absorbing pigments from spinach to nerve cells in the retina. The hope is that the nerve cells fire when hit by light.
A team led by Eli Greenbaum has shown that adding plant pigments to human cells makes the cells respond to light. Even if successful, however, the experiment would only partly restore vision, and subjects would be color-blind.
Greenbaum told New Scientist, however, that it could provide far better resolution than the electronic retinal implants being developed. Retinal implants are offered to people suffering from degenerative eye diseases like retinitis pigmentosa.
China Confirms 2 More SARS Cases
China has confirmed two more cases of SARS among the seven suspected, bringing the total of verified victims to four, the country's Ministry of Health announced Thursday.
All confirmed and suspected victims are still believed linked to two government technicians in Beijing, who developed the disease in March while working in a SARS lab. The World Health Organization is investigating the likely security lapses that led to the original infections, Channel News Asia reported. A WHO spokesman said the agency is presuming that the two workers acquired the disease at different times, rather than one infecting the other.
The WHO spokesman also said the agency is trying to track 18 foreigners who had visited the Beijing lab since March 1. About 1,000 people are now under quarantine on the Chinese mainland.
In Taiwan, meanwhile, a 79-year-old man has been isolated after developing a high fever and cough upon his return from a two-week trip to Beijing in mid-April. Test results for SARS are pending, Channel News Asia reported.
41 Million Americans Have Pre-Diabetes
Some 41 million Americans have risk factors for diabetes, the U.S. government said in doubling previously accepted estimates, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
High blood sugar levels, a condition that health officials now characterize as pre-diabetes, dramatically increase a person's risk of developing the full-blown disease. The previous "at-risk" estimates were doubled, the AP reported, after recent research showed that the accepted criteria meant that too many patients were being missed.
"We need to help Americans take steps to prevent diabetes or we will risk being overwhelmed by the health and economic consequences of an ever-growing diabetes epidemic," the wire service quoted U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as saying.
While a proper diet and exercise can help many people avoid the full-blown disease, most of those at risk don't know it, experts told the AP. Type 2 diabetes, once referred to as the "adult-onset" form, often develops in middle age when a person's system loses the ability to properly convert blood sugar into energy. While this form of the disease can affect children, the process of acquiring the disorder often is very gradual, and can be monitored over the years by blood tests, the AP reported.
The American Diabetes Association recommends that people over 45 or with risk factors -- such as being overweight, having a diabetic relative, high cholesterol, or being diabetic during pregnancy -- should ask their doctor about getting tested, the wire service reported.
Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea Affecting Gay Men
Powerful antibiotics called fluoroquinolones should no longer be used as a primary treatment for gonorrhea among gay and bisexual men, since the sexually transmitted disease has become increasingly resistant to the drugs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday.
The affected class of drugs includes Cipro (cirprofloxacin) and Levaquin (levofloxacin). A CDC study in 23 American cities found that the percentage of resistant gonorrhea cases among gay and bisexual men nearly tripled between 2002 and 2003, from 1.8 percent to 4.9 percent.
Similar findings had been reported after regional studies centered in Massachusetts and New York, the agency said.
The CDC recommended that primary treatment options for gay and bisexual men now include the antibiotics ceftriaxone and spectinomycin. Given the low occurrence of drug-resistant gonorrhea among heterosexual men and women, the agency said it recommended no change in treatment options for these groups.