Health Highlights: July 28, 2004

Brain Injury More Likely in Side-Impact Collisions Genetically Altered Foods Need to Be Assessed Individually Doctors Not Doing Enough HIV Patient Counseling Researchers Find Marker for Premature Birth Medicare Will Pay for Initial Physical FDA Experts Endorse Drug for Lung Cancer

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

Brain Injury More Likely in Side-Impact Collisions

People involved in side-impact vehicle crashes are three times more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury than those involved in a head-on crash or other types of collisions, says a University of Rochester study.

The study also found that brain injuries inflicted during side-impact collisions are usually more severe. The findings are published online in the August issue of the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The researchers analyzed a sample of crashes reported to the National Highway Safety Administration for the year 2000. They found that traumatic brain injury was the cause of death in 51 to 74 percent of single-vehicle side collisions and 41 to 64 percent of multiple vehicle side-impact crashes.

The study also found that better head protection in vehicles could reduce all crash-related brain injuries by up to 61 percent, and cut fatal or critical brain injuries by up to 23.5 percent. Those percentages represent about 2,230 fewer deaths or critical injuries per year.

Seat belt use, not frontal air bags, was associated with a reduced risk of brain injury during a collision.

Men have a lower risk than women of brain injury in crashes. Previous research suggests that may because men's greater neck strength reduces head movement during a crash. Men also have better body position in a vehicle due to greater height and weight.

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Genetically Altered Foods Need to Be Assessed Individually

The safety of genetically altered foods should be assessed by federal agencies on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they pose a threat to human health, recommends a report from the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

"All evidence to date indicates that any breeding technique that alters a plant or animal -- whether by genetic engineering or other methods -- has the potential to create unintended changes in the quality or amounts of food components that could harm health," committee chair Bettie Sue Masters, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, said in a prepared statement.

"The possible impact of such compositional changes should be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether and how much further evaluation is needed," she said.

The committee noted that scientists currently have only limited ability to predict whether genetic engineering will cause adverse health effects in humans. More research in this area is needed, said the report.

It was commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Doctors Not Doing Enough HIV Patient Counseling

Doctors in some major U.S. cities aren't providing adequate counseling to people with HIV, says a new study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials believe that regular counseling for HIV patients is critical to stopping the spread of the virus, the Associated Press reported.

The study found that doctors in Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Los Angeles were more likely to give HIV-risk reduction counseling to people newly diagnosed with HIV than to their existing HIV patients.

Of the 317 doctors surveyed, about 60 percent said they regularly counseled new HIV patients but only 14 percent said they gave regular counseling to existing HIV patients.

The study authors wrote that this lack of counseling for existing HIV patients represents a missed opportunity to deliver messages about preventing the spread of HIV. The study appears in this month's issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

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Researchers Find Marker for Premature Birth

Researchers have found a protein marker in the blood that can indicate whether a pregnant woman has a uterine infection that can lead to premature birth. The discovery could lead to a test that could prevent about 175,000 early births every year, according to the Associated Press.

The study by scientists at Oregon Health & Science University involved only 33 women, leading some experts to say that larger trials are needed to confirm the results.

The study's authors, writing in the July 28 Journal of the American Medical Association, said they hope their discovery leads to a diagnostic test that would allow doctors to treat women with uterine infections earlier. Such infections typically stem from an overabundance of bacteria that normally live in the vagina. Pregnant women often show no symptoms of infection until they prematurely go into labor, the AP reported.

Uterine infections are the root cause of about half of the 350,000 premature births in the United States each year, the news service said. Infants born to infected mothers are at risk of a host of health problems, including brain disorders and blindness.

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Medicare Will Pay for Initial Physical

Under the new Medicare law passed last December, the federal/state insurance program will begin to cover a variety of preventive health services, including an initial physical exam for new participants who turn 65, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The physical will include flu and hepatitis B vaccines; mammograms; Pap smears and pelvic exams; and screening tests for glaucoma, osteoporosis, and for cancers of the prostate and colon, the newspaper said.

As part of the "welcome to Medicare physical," the program will also pay for an electrocardiogram, an assessment of a person's risk of depression, and hearing and vision tests.

For people already in the program, coverage will include tests for cholesterol and diabetes, according to the Times. These latest changes will begin Jan. 1.

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FDA Experts Endorse Drug for Lung Cancer

An expert advisory panel has recommended unanimously that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approve the Eli Lilly drug Alimta to treat nonsmall-cell lung cancer, the Indianapolis Star reported Wednesday.

The nonsmall-cell variety is the most common type of lung cancer, affecting roughly 140,000 Americans each year and more than 1 million people worldwide.

Alimta was initially approved in February to treat malignant pleural mesothelioma, a cancer almost always associated with the now-banned insulating material asbestos. Lilly is continuing three large clinical trials to further study the drug's effects on nonsmall-cell lung cancer.

The FDA, which usually follows its advisory panels' recommendations, is expected to reach a final decision by year's end, the newspaper said.

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