Today's Health Highlights: Jan. 2, 2002

Hormone Protects Against Ovarian Cancer The Skinny on Fat Cells Study: Many Melanoma Web Sites Not to Be Trusted EPA Says Senate Building Seems Free From Anthrax Spores Heart Disease is Nation's Biggest Health Enemy New Study Pushes for Less Labor During Childbirth A 'Morning-After' Pill for HIV

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

Hormone in Oral Contraceptives Protects Against Ovarian Cancer

The hormone progestin contained in birth-control pills offers the greatest protection against ovarian cancer, according to new research.

Wire service reports say Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center's review of a 20-year-old study showed that women taking oral contraceptives containing the hormones estrogen and progestin cut the risk of ovarian cancer by 50 percent.

But women who took pills containing high levels of progestin reduced their risk by an additional 50 percent, according to the review, which appears in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Associated Press reports.

"The take-home message from this study is that oral contraceptives are protective against ovarian cancer and our finding that the high progestin potency effect is a scientific [result] that might lead to new protective'' drugs against ovarian cancer, said Patricia G. Moorman, a Duke University Medical Center researcher and co-author of the study.


The Skinny on Fat Cells

Two sets of researchers have independently pinpointed a gene that puts the finishing touch on turning cells into fat, according to HealthDay.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the drug company Pfizer, working independently, identified the gene that creates PARgamma as being crucial to making fat cells. According to an expert in obesity and diabetes research, targeting this gene could lead to new therapies against obesity.

The findings appear in the current issue of the journal Genes & Development.


Study: Many Melanoma Web Sites Not to Be Trusted

Savvy searchers for online health information about melanoma need to be skeptical, say experts who have studied popular Web site offerings on the deadly skin disease, HealthDay reported today.

Melanoma is cancer of the skin cells that produce skin pigment. People who are fair-skinned, or who have a large number of moles or freckles, are at greater risk of this disease. Exposure to ultraviolet light, such as that in sunlight or light from tanning beds, is also a risk factor for melanoma.

Not only was some of the Web site information incomplete, but also it was downright wrong, researchers at the University of Michigan Health System found. The study is published in the January issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.


EPA Says Senate Building Seems Free From Anthrax Spores

The third time was the charm, at least when it came to ridding the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., of remaining anthrax spores, federal environmental officials say.

But pending laboratory results must still confirm that the building is free of the potentially deadly bacteria; those results won't be ready for several days, the Associated Press reported.

Technicians working with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials pumped chlorine dioxide gas into the southeast quadrant of the building's heating and ventilation system for three days, until early Monday morning. Two previous fumigation efforts weren't completely successful.

The building, which houses the offices of half the 100 senators, was shuttered Oct. 17, two days after an anthrax-laden letter was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Daschle said Sunday there was a reasonable chance the building would reopen this month, according to the AP.

Since the anthrax-by-mail bioterror campaign began in early October, five people have died from inhalation anthrax, and 18 others were infected.


Heart Disease is Nation's Biggest Health Enemy

Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of Americans, and a new study has the statistics to prove it.

Almost 62 million Americans suffer from some form of heart disease, and almost 1 million people die from it annually, according to the American Heart Association's just-released annual report.

Yet one-third of those deaths could be prevented if people improved their diets and got more exercise, the AHA said.


New Study Pushes for Less Labor During Childbirth

Conventional wisdom has held that a woman should "push" her way through labor to expedite the birth of her baby. But a new study says taking an occasional break from the pushing poses no threat to the mother or her child, according to ABC News.

The study was based on 252 women who were given a spinal anesthetic to manage the pain of childbirth. While some women were told to take periodic rests during labor, the others were instructed to pursue the traditional method of pushing throughout their labor, ABC News said.

There is one downside to the less-laborious approach, according to the study, published in this month's American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology. The average length of labor is increased by roughly 30-to-90 minutes, up to nearly five hours, ABC reported.


A 'Morning-After' Pill for HIV

Just had unsafe sex? Call your doctor in the morning, prepare to take a month's worth of potentially unpleasant pills, and you may -- just may -- dodge AIDS, according to HealthDay.

For several years, that has been the quiet advice of some doctors who deal with people at risk of getting AIDS because of unsafe sexual encounters.

It's the same federally-endorsed drug regimen designed to prevent the deadly disease in medical workers who may have been infected with HIV on the job.

But the "morning-after" therapy for unsafe sex remains a little-known option for a variety of reasons.

For starters, critics question the drug regimen's effectiveness; studies have shown it's not foolproof. Opponents also wonder if the therapy is a wise use of money and resources. Most worrisome, they add, is the prospect that more people will engage in unsafe sex if they know there's a pill they can take afterwards that might protect them.

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