Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 10, 2001

Naming of HIV Patients Draws Fire Allergists Call for More Asthma Testing Study Questions Effectiveness of Mammograms Nobel Laureate Calls for Global Health Effort Folic Acid in Moms May Prevent Leukemia

Monday, December 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

Naming of HIV Patients Draws Fire

AIDS activists are fighting Connecticuts upcoming policy of keeping tabs on residents who are HIV-positive, the Associated Press reports.

Starting next month, doctors will report to the state all the names of patients who test positive for the virus that causes AIDS. The only exceptions will be for patients who specifically request to remain anonymous.

According to an October article by HealthDay, about 40 states now track by name most or all people who test positive for HIV. All 50 states track patients who develop AIDS by name.

Some states put limits on the gathering of names by destroying records after a specified period or using "unique identifier" codes that allow patients to remain anonymous.

Critics fear that record-keeping will frighten people away from AIDS tests.


Allergists Call for More Asthma Testing

A national association of allergists wants to make asthma and allergy screening as common in schools as programs that check children for eye and ear problems, HealthDay reports.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology wants to expand small, local programs that test schoolchildren, said Dr. Robert Miles, chairman of the college's screening program coordinating committee.

"It's really fascinating, and it's very exciting," Miles says of the effort. "New studies show that the earlier you diagnose asthma and the more aggressive the treatment, the better the outcome," says Miles.

An estimated 4.4 million children under age 18 have asthma.


Study Questions Effectiveness of Mammograms

Do mammograms work? Doctors and patients consider them to be essential tools in the prevention of breast cancer, but a debate has begun over whether they do any good at all, according to The New York Times.

In late October, a report appeared in The Lancet, a British medical journal, suggesting that mammograms don't prevent mastectomies or breast cancer deaths.

No one is suggesting that women stop having mammograms. But doubt has been cast upon the promises that early detection of breast cancer tumors would reduce death rates by 30 percent.

The report, which analyzed seven large studies, questioned research that supported the preventative value of mammograms.

"The quality of the (pro-mammogram) trials was very surprising because it is pretty low," said investigator Dr. Peter Gotzsche, director of the Nordic Cochrane Center in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Even if they are judged by yesterday's standards, the quality is low. In some cases, we know why that happened these trials were conducted by people who were unfamiliar with clinical trial methodology. They were run by enthusiastic clinicians."

The researchers prefered to look at studies of 21,088 women in Sweden and 44,925 in Canada, which found no significant difference in breast cancer death rates between women who had mammograms and those who didn't.


Nobel Laureate Calls for Global Health Effort

An American Nobel laureate who made breakthroughs in the study of cancer is suggesting the creation of an international agency, similar to the Peace Corps, to bring scientists and researchers to poor nations, the Associated Press reports.

Dr. Harold Varmus, former head of the U.S. Institutes of Health, told an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, that the wealthiest countries must work to help eliminate disparities in health care or risk destabilization.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 make people ask about the "role of science in the world," Varmus said. "Will it continue for the benefit of mankind or simply accentuate a growing difference between the rich and the poor?''

Varmus won a Nobel Prize in 1989 for work leading to the identification of genes that become mutated in cancer. He is now president of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Varmus said his proposed international agency would recruit researchers and scientists to work in the Third World like the U.S. Peace Corps did beginning in the 1960s.


Folic Acid in Moms May Prevent Leukemia

An Australian study contends that folic acid supplements may reduce the risk of childhood leukemia, but an American expert case doubt on the findings, HealthDay reports.

A report in the Dec. 8 issue of The Lancet found that the incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia was 60 percent lower among children of women who took supplements of folate, a form of folic acid, along with iron during pregnancy than in children whose mothers didn't.

The disease strikes about 1 in every 10,000 births in the U.S., but the cure rate is high 80 percent.

The Australian report has discrepancies that make its findings "doubtful," said Dr. Nancy S. Green, associate professor of pediatrics and microbiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and assistant medical director of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

Women already are advised to have an adequate intake of folic acid before and during pregnancy. Sources include supplements; green, leafy vegetables; and enriched foods like breakfast cereal, bread, and rice and corn products.

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