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Health Highlights: Nov. 22, 2004

WTC Health Registry Sees Rise in Breathing Problems Churches Have Poor Air Quality Can Chocolate Be a Cough Suppressant? Texas Woman's Death May Have 'Mad Cow' Tie Employer Health Insurance Costs Slowed in '04 FDA Approves Tracking Device for Surgical Cases

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

WTC Health Registry Sees Rise in Breathing Problems

Most of the adults enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry reported one or more new or worsened respiratory problems in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, says the latest quarterly report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The report additionally found that about 8 percent of the adult enrollees reported symptoms of psychological stress in the 30 days prior to be interviewed for the registry. That rate is 60 percent higher than the citywide average of five percent.

Of the 57,359 adults enrolled in the registry as of early September 2004, 47 percent reported sinus problems or nasal/postnasal irritation, 42 percent had shortness of breath, and 38 percent reported throat irritation and wheezing.

Other common problems included persistent cough, eye irritation, heartburn, indigestion, severe headaches, skin rash or irritation, and hearing problems.

The registry, which now includes more than 70,000 people, was established to track the health of residents, workers, and others directly exposed to the collapse of the World Trade Center.

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Churches Have Poor Air Quality

You might want to say a prayer for your lungs the next time you go to church.

A Dutch study found that the air in churches may contain high levels of particulate matter emitted from burning candles and incense. Particulate matter is among the most harmful kinds of air pollution.

The researchers checked air quality at a large basilica and a small chapel in Maastricht and found that particulate levels in both locations were as much as 20 times greater than what European air pollution standards consider safe, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In fact, the particulate levels in both the chapel and basilica were similar to levels in the air beside roads traveled by 45,000 cars a day.

While this shouldn't be much of a threat to most churchgoers, it could pose a health hazard for priests and devout people who spend a lot of time in poorly ventilated houses of worship, the researchers said.

The study appears in the December issue of the European Respiratory Journal.

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Can Chocolate Be a Cough Suppressant?

An ingredient in chocolate called theobromine seems to suppress persistent coughs and may help scientists develop new and better cough medicines.

Researchers at Imperial College London found that theobromine is nearly a third more effective than the leading medicine codeine in stopping persistent coughs, BBC News Online reported.

Theobromine also produces fewer side effects and doesn't make people drowsy.

The study included 10 volunteers who were given theobromine, codeine, or a placebo and exposed to capsaicin, a substance that causes coughing. People given theobromine required about a third higher concentration of capsaicin to make them cough, compared to those who took the placebo.

The volunteers who took codeine required only a slightly higher concentration of capsaicin to make them cough, compared to those who took the placebo.

Theobromine suppresses vagus nerve activity, which controls coughing, BBC News Online reported.

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Texas Woman's Death May Have 'Mad Cow' Tie

Test results on the brain of a 71-year-old Texas woman who died last month are due within two weeks to see if she died from the human form of "mad cow" disease, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Burnell Baize of Beaumont died of the brain-wasting illness Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease on October 16. There are two forms -- one that's associated with mad cow, and the more common form, classic CJD, for which there usually is no known origin.

The mad cow-related form, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, may be contracted by people if they eat contaminated meat. Baize began to suffer from dementia in late summer and was in a coma during the last week of her life, her son said. The tests on Baize's brain, being conducted at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center in Ohio, will determine which form the woman had.

While as many as 10 people in the United States die from the more common form each year, the variant form has been known to have killed only about 100 people in Britain and elsewhere, the AP reported.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it had identified a second possible case of mad cow among livestock. Tests are pending to confirm the initial result. The United States confirmed its first-ever diagnosis of mad cow last year in a Washington state Holstein.

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Employer Health Insurance Costs Slowed in '04

The rate of growth for what employers pay for health insurance slowed this year, following five years of double-digit growth, a new survey found.

The cost of employee health benefits jumped by 7.5 percent in 2004 to $6,679 a year, according to the report by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. The average increase was 10.1 percent in 2003, the company found.

According to The New York Times, it wasn't that insurers necessarily eased the burden to employers less this year, it was that the companies shifted more of the health care costs to their workers, Mercer experts told the newspaper. Many companies now offer plans that require deductibles of $1,000 or more, the experts said.

The cost of prescription drugs continues to soar, with annual growth rates of about 15 percent, a Mercer spokesman told the newspaper.

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FDA Approves Tracking Device for Surgical Cases

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved an external tracking device designed to minimize the chances of doctors performing the wrong surgery on the wrong person.

The device, which uses radio frequency identification (RFID) chip technology to mark the anatomical site for surgery, also contains the patient's name, type of procedure, and name of surgeon. The device adheres to the patient's skin like a band-aid.

Just before the surgery, the chip is scanned and the un-sedated patient is asked to confirm the information, or the data is compared to the patient's chart.

The FDA endorsed the same technology last week as a way to prevent counterfeiting of prescription drugs and monitor the bulk medications as they travel from wholesalers to pharmacies.

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