Category Archives: Health

Rebuilding Continues in Joplin

It’s been months since a massive Level 5 tornado flattened Joplin, Mo., killing 125 people and destroying more than 8,000 buildings. It was one of the most destructive twisters in U.S. history, and its devastating effects are still being felt.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the non-profit AmeriCares connected directly with its partner clinics, shelters, and health care providers in Joplin and nearby Springfield to provide essential first-aid supplies. It also supplied life-saving intravenous fluids and medications to the field hospital that was temporarily erected near the ruins of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, the city’s main hospital. But as important as these critical-care supplies were, residents were also in desperate need of chronic care medications for diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions. AmeriCares helped ensure the continued supply of these pharmaceuticals despite local pharmacies’ empty shelves.

Your donation will help AmeriCares keep the medications flowing to people who need them.

In mid-July, Alex Ostasiewicz, a multimedia associate for AmeriCares, revisited the devastated region to check up on the town’s progress. “I’d never seen tornado damage before,” she said. “Although it’s clear that much progress has been made in the cleanup, the landscape is bleak and barren, and there’s still a significant amount of debris.” Since the storm, more than 65,000 volunteers have flocked to Joplin and the surrounding areas, and debris removal is still ongoing. AmeriCares supplies tetanus vaccine, antibiotics, and other essential medications to ensure volunteers’ safety. In addition, like the rest of the country, Joplin has been engulfed in the heat wave, making the workers’ jobs harder.

What’s becoming increasingly important in the tornado’s aftermath is providing much-needed psychological care to the survivors. “We saw similar needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters,” explains Ostasiewicz. “These people have lost their homes, their community, and their support system.” Group therapy to address longer-term complications like depression and anxiety is important to repairing the community of Joplin.

Keep front line health care workers safe

They save lives, prevent suffering, and help save money on health care. They make us feel protected, secure and safe. But surprisingly, more than 80 percent of nurses don’t feel safe or secure when they’re at work.

Why? Because in the course of a day, they are regularly exposed to dangerous bacteria and viruses, like hepatitis and HIV. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1,000 needle-stick and other “sharps” injuries are suffered every day by nurses and health care workers.

At greatest risk for serious illness are volunteer health care workers who serve the poor and uninsured, who are more likely to carry infectious diseases. That’s where AmeriCares comes in; the non-profit delivers necessary medical supplies, like needles and hand sanitizer, to free and low-cost health clinics nationwide in an effort to protect America’s nurses and health care workers. “They’re a nation’s greatest resource,” explains Frank Bia, MD, medical director of AmeriCares. “Protecting them from injury and disease is critical to ensuring the overall health of the population.”

Bia has firsthand experience with this issue — when he was an intern, he contracted hepatitis B, a serious liver infection, from a needle stick. “Anything you can do to prevent exposure can have a great payoff,” he says.

In fact, protecting America’s health care workers isn’t that difficult or costly. Just a few bottles of hand-sanitizing gel weekly — donated by AmeriCares — help keep the staff infection-free at The Way-Free Clinic, which delivers comprehensive medical care to more than 37,000 uninsured residents of Clay County, Fla.

“Our staff is entirely volunteer, and we must keep them healthy,” explains executive director Christie Fitzgerald. “In the past, we’ve had some significant flu outbreaks, and when those patients come in to be treated, they are highly contagious. Hand sanitizer helps ensure that we don’t transmit the virus from person to person. Thankfully, none of our volunteers have gotten the flu, and I credit the hand sanitizer; our staff is constantly using it.”

Supplying necessary everyday items like hand-sanitizing gel or needles equipped with safety features doesn’t just protect health care workers, it also protects patients from unnecessary exposure and as a result, halts population outbreaks of illnesses like the flu.

Your support could help ensure healthier nurses and patients. Donate now.

In addition, by donating such everyday items, AmeriCares helps free clinics preserve their funding for other needs, such as diagnostic tests, labwork, and treatment procedures. “The money I save on items like hand-sanitizing gel goes directly to patient care,” explains Fitzgerald.

Everyday Health For All, Everyday Health’s new philanthropic initiative, is teaming up with AmeriCares to raise $8,000. That will pay for three months of hygiene and safety supplies for each of five free clinics to keep nurses and other health care workers healthy and injury-free.

Smart tips can make using your cell phone safer

Does the World Health Organization’s statement that cell phones may cause cancer have you thinking twice about making that phone call?

Of course it’s alarming to think that something that’s become such a can’t-live-without can be linked to brain cancer, but there’s a lot even the most cell phone-addicted people can do to minimize health risks.

Any potential links to cancer stem from the low levels of radiation cell phones emit. Lower your exposure to the radiation, and you’ll reduce the potential links to cancer or other health problems:

  1. Use a headset. Sounds obvious, but headsets emit much less radiation than cell phones do, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and they keep your cell phone away from your head. The farther away you are from a source of radiation, the less damage it can do.
  2. Text when you can. Your constantly texting teens are onto something: Cell phones use less energy (and emit less radiation) when you text than when you talk, says the EWG. Texting also keeps the radiation source farther away from your brain.
  3. Use cell phones for FYI-only calls. Don’t use your cell phone for that long overdue, hour-long catch-up with your sister. Keep calls as short as possible — Do you need me to get the dry cleaning, honey? — and switch to a landline if they’re veering off into chitchat territory.
  4. Watch the bars. Can you hear me now? If you’re struggling to maintain a connection, ditch the call and wait until you have better service. When your phone has fewer signal bars, it has to work harder (and, therefore, emit more radiation) to connect.
  5. Keep the phone away from your ear when you can. EMF-Health.com recommends waiting for the call to connect before you bring the phone to your ear, which minimizes radiation exposure. And when you talk, tilt the phone away from your ear and bring it in close when you’re listening. That’s because the radiation levels are “significantly less when a cell phone is receiving signals than when it is transmitting,” Lin Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston, told The New York Times.
  6. Don’t make calls in elevators or cars. You already it’s dangerous to talk and drive; EMF-Health.com says that cell phones use more power to establish a connection in enclosed metal spaces like cars and elevators.
  7. Make sure your kids use the landline. It seems like even toddlers are using cell phones today, but experts say kids are the most vulnerable to potential radiation dangers. The EWG says children’s brains absorb twice as much cell phone radiation as adults. According to The New York Times, health authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all have warnings against letting children use cell phones.

Chemicals May Affect Thyroid Function

Chemicals called phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) that are found in solvents, plastics and numerous household products may alter levels of thyroid hormones in the body, according to a new study.

Thyroid hormones play a role in many critical bodily functions, including reproduction and metabolism.

Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to compare thyroid levels and traces of phthalates and BPA in urine samples of 1,346 adults and 329 teenagers. Their findings confirmed previous research linking BPA — used in certain plastic water bottles and the linings of canned foods — with disruptions in thyroid hormone levels, they said.

Overall, higher concentrations of the chemicals had an inverse impact on thyroid levels, said study lead author John Meeker, an assistant professor, in a university news release. The greater the exposure to phthalates and BPA, the lower the thyroid hormone levels.

The strongest link occurred with exposure to DEHP, a phthalate commonly used as a plasticizer, which people come into contact with through diet.

In the cases of DEHP ingestion, urine samples showed that the greatest exposure was associated with as much as a 10 percent drop in thyroid hormones.

“This seems like a subtle difference,” said Meeker, “but if you think about the entire population being exposed at this level you’d see many more thyroid related effects in people.”

The authors concluded that additional research is needed. In other ongoing studies, they are assessing the chemicals’ potential effects on pregnancy outcomes and child development.

Developing fetuses and children may be particularly vulnerable to disruptions in thyroid hormone levels associated with exposure to these and other environmental chemicals, Meeker said.

The researchers, acknowledging some limitations of their study, said their work could be improved by following people over time and collecting several urine samples, since these chemicals metabolize quickly and one single sample may not represent the true chemical exposure.

Medical Identity Theft

What is medical identity theft? In this serious and growing problem, someone else uses your personal information to obtain medical goods or services. Medical identity theft affects consumers, health care providers, and insurance organization. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), medical identity theft accounts for about 3 percent of all identity theft, and the World Privacy Forum claims it’s the most difficult form of identity theft to correct.

When you are the victim of medical identity theft, incorrect information about diagnoses and treatments may appear on your medical records, potentially affecting your health care providers’ decisions about your care and treatment. Also, in addition to paying for treatment you didn’t receive, in some cases you might be denied treatment or coverage because of fraudulent medical or insurance information.

But there is some good news: HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and the Identity Theft Protection Act, already in place, give you many of the tools you need to get errors corrected at your doctor’s office and with your insurance provider. Of course, like any crime, you’re better off preventing it from happening in the first place.

Spotting Medical Identity Theft

Among other signs, the FTC states that you may be a target of a potential medical identity theft or fraud if you are charged for medical services you didn’t receive. Keep a calendar to track your appointments, treatment dates, and any hospital admission and discharge dates. If the explanation of benefits from your insurance provider or Medicare isn’t exactly right, clear up the error as soon as possible.

Medical receipts, prescription drug information, health insurance forms, and any documents bearing your health care providers’ names might be all a clever thief needs to begin off-loading other medical claims to you. If you don’t need to keep medical documents, shred or burn them, and peel off labels from your prescription medications before recycling the containers.

Legal Protection to Combat Medical Identity Theft

The Identity Theft Protection Act of 2005 requires any commercial, charitable, educational, or non-profit organization that acquires or uses sensitive personal data to provide significant administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to prevent that data from being mishandled.

The same act that allows consumers to place a freeze on their credit reports also requires any covered entity to investigate suspected misappropriation of personal medical data and to do everything possible to correct resulting inaccurate medical information and billing problems.

A food additive that gives Coke

The FDA should ban the use of two compounds widely used in food products, including market giants Coke and Pepsi as well as other soft drinks, because they pose a cancer risk, according to a petition filed by a citizen’s group.

But the American Beverage Association denounced the petition, filed Feb. 16, as “nothing more than another attempt to scare consumers” that is not supported by science.

At issue are caramel colorings that contain 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole.

According to the petition, filed by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, both have been found by the National Toxicology Program to cause cancer in animals.

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And last month, California regulators added one of them — 4-methylimidazole — to the list of chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer.” The state said the safe limit for consumption of the chemical is 16 micrograms a day.

However, a recent study suggested that 12 ounces of cola would contain up to 130 micrograms of the substance, according to the petition.

The coloring substances are made by treating sugars with ammonium alone or ammonium and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures; the two compounds are byproducts of the process.

Feeding studies conducted by the National Toxicology Program showed that high doses of the substances led to lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.

The government researchers concluded there was “clear evidence” that 4-methylimidazole caused cancer in mice, although studies in rats were less clear, with significant increases in leukemia in females but no increase in tumor activity in males.

They also concluded that 2-methylimidazole caused cancer in female rats and argued there was “some evidence” the substance caused tumors in male and female mice.

“Carcinogenic colorings have no place in the food supply,” according to Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the citizens’ group.

 

“The FDA should act quickly to revoke its approval of caramel colorings made with ammonia,” Jacobson said in a statement.

The American Beverage Association, however, noted that the National Toxicology Program does not include 4-methylimidazole among compounds on its list of substances “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”

“No health regulatory agency around the globe, including the Food and Drug Administration, has said that 4-methylimidazole is a human carcinogen,” the association said in a statement.

The beverage association did not mention the other compound, 2-methylimidazole, and a representative was not immediately available for comment.

The petition was supported by a letter from five other scientists, including two former members of the National Toxicology Program and one researcher still working there.

Learn more in the Everyday Health Healthy Living Center.

Promises to Cut Funds for Healthcare Reform and Birth Control

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a bill to continue funding government programs in 2011, but cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The debate over HR 1, a bill that would continue appropriating 2011 funds, lasted five grueling days, ending with final passage early Saturday morning by a vote of 235 to 189. No Democrats voted in favor of the appropriations bill, but three Republicans crossed the aisle to vote against it.

Health Insurance Resource Center

Last week was filled with emotional debate on the House floor over what the government should fund, and what programs should have funding cut or eliminated.

One of the most contentious items wrapped up in the budget bill was an amendment by Mike Pence (R-Ind.) to cut off all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which passed by a vote of 240-185.

During debate over that measure, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calf.) took to the floor and delivered an angry and impassioned speech that revealed she’d had an abortion, and to denounce amendment that would take away funding for family planning, sexual health services, and abortions.

Other amendments offered ranged from space exploration to NASCAR, to studying Asian carp, and served to highlight the wide differences in spending priorities held by the two political parties.

One GOP amendment would bar the use of funds in the bill to pay the salary of any employee of the Department of Health and Humans Services (HHS) who works to comply with the ACA. That amendment passed by a vote of 241-184.

Republicans passed another measure to cut off funding for the IRS to enforce the individual mandate in the ACA, and another that would cut off funds for federal work on health exchanges.

An amendment by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a physician, would cut off funds for to implement the medical loss ratio provision of the ACA, which stipulates that insurers must spend most of the money premiums on patient care.

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But this appropriations bill won’t cut all funding for those ACA provisions because the most of the spending for healthcare reform is budgeted for future years.

The spending bill — with all its healthcare amendments — now goes to the Senate where it faces more contentious debate on Feb. 28 when Congress returns from its Presidents’ Day holiday recess.

Help Ease Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who participated in programs aimed at helping them overcome their symptoms — a combination of exercise and counseling — improved more than those whose treatment was intended to help them adapt to the limitations of the disease, a large randomized trial found.

Mean fatigue scores among patients treated with graded exercise therapy — a tailored program that gradually increases exercise capacity — were 3.2 points lower than scores in patients who received specialist medical care alone, according to Dr. Peter D. White, of Queen Mary University of London, and colleagues.

Furthermore, fatigue scores were lower by 3.4 points among patients receiving cognitive behavioral therapy, in which a therapist works with the patient to understand the disease, alleviate fears about activity, and help overcome obstacles to functioning.

In contrast, among patients who were treated with a program known as adaptive pacing therapy, which emphasizes energy limitations and avoidance of excess activity, scores differed by only 0.7 points the researchers reported online in The Lancet.

In a press briefing describing the study findings, co-investigator Dr. Trudie Chalder, of King’s College London, said, “We monitored safety very carefully, because we wanted to be sure we weren’t causing harm to any patients.”

“The number of serious adverse events was miniscule,” she added.

Another co-investigator, Dr. Michael Sharpe, of the University of Edinburgh, commented that a difficulty in the management of chronic fatigue syndrome has been ambiguity — about the causes and whether these treatments recommended by NICE actually are effective.

“The evidence up to now has suggested benefit, but this study gives pretty clear-cut evidence of safety and efficacy. So I hope that addresses the ambiguity,” Sharpe said during the press briefing.

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However, the investigators conceded that the beneficial effects of these treatments were only moderate, with less than one-third of participants being within normal ranges for fatigue and functioning, and only about 40 percent reporting that their overall health was much better or very much better.

“Our finding that studied treatments were only moderately effective also suggests research into more effective treatments is needed,” they wrote.

In addition, they stated that their finding of efficacy for cognitive behavioral therapy “does not imply that the condition is psychological in nature.”

The importance of cognitive behavioral therapy was further emphasized by Dr. Benjamin H. Natelson, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“This approach of encouragement of activity and discouragement of negative thinking should be a tool in every physician’s armamentarium,” he said.

An upsurge in diseases like asthma and bronchitis

Medical and public health groups are banding together to explain how global warming has taken a toll on human health and will continue to cause food-borne illnesses, respiratory problems, and deaths unless policy changes are enacted.

In a conference call with reporters, the heads of the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) joined with a pediatrician and a scientist to lay out what they say is a major public health issue: climate change caused by global warming.

The Link Between Air Pollution and Asthma

The “evidence has only grown stronger” that climate change is responsible for an increasing number of health ills, including asthma, diarrheal disease, and even deaths from extreme weather such as heat waves, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the APHA.

For one, rising temperatures can mean more smog, which makes children with asthma sicker, explained pediatrician Dr. Perry Sheffield, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York.

There is also evidence that pollen season is also getting longer, she said, which could lead to an increase in the number of people with asthma.

Climate change also is thought to lead to increased concentrations of ozone, a pollutant formed on clear, cloudless days. Ozone is a lung irritant which can affect asthmatics, those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and those with heart disease, said Dr. Kristie Ebi, who is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

More ozone can mean more health problems and more hospital visits, she said.

Aside from air-related ailments and illnesses, extreme weather can have a devastating effect on health, Sheffield said.

“As a result of global warming, extreme storms including hurricanes, heavy rainfall, and even snowstorms are expected to increase,” Sheffield said. “And these events pose risk of injury and disruption of special medical services, which are particularly important to children with special medical needs.”

Extreme heat waves and droughts are responsible for more deaths than any other weather-related event, Sheffield said.

The 2006 heat wave that spread through most of the U.S. and Canada saw temperatures that topped 100 degrees. In all, 450 people died, 16,000 visited the emergency room, and 1,000 were hospitalized, said Dr. Cecil Wilson, president of the AMA.

Climate change has already caused temperatures to rise and precipitation to increase, which, in turn, can cause diseases carried by tics, mosquitoes, and other animals to spread past their normal geographical range, explained Ebi.

For instance, Lyme disease is increasing in some areas, she said, including in Canada, where scientists are tracking the spread of Lyme disease north.

Ebi also recounted the 2004 outbreak of the leading seafood-related cause of gastroenteritis, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, from Alaskan seafood, which was attributed to increased ocean temperatures causing infected sea creatures to travel 600 miles north.

Salmonella outbreaks also increase when temperatures are very warm, Sheffield said.

A 2008 study also projected that global warming will lead to a possible increase in the prevalence of kidney stones due to increased dehydration, although the link hasn’t been proven.

Wilson said the AMA wants to make doctors aware of the projected rise in climate-related illnesses. To combat climate change, Wilson says physicians and public health groups can advocate for policies that improve public health, and should also serve as role models by adopting environmentally-friendly policies such as eliminating paper waste and using energy-efficient lighting in their practices.

“Climate instability threatens our health and life-supporting system, and the risk to our health and well-being will continue to mount unless we all do our part to stabilize the climate and protect the nation’s health,” said Wilson.

Benjamin added that doctors should pay attention to the Air Quality Index. For instance, if there’s a “Code Red” day, which indicates the air is unhealthy, physicians should advise patients (particularly those with cardiac or respiratory conditions) that it’s not the day to try and mow the grass.

“ER docs are quite aware of Code Red days because we know that when those occur, we’re going to see lots of patients in the emergency room,” Benjamin said.

The conference call came as Congress is considering what role the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have in updating its safeguards against carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

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While the EPA has the authority to regulate levels of CO2, a budget bill passed by the House of Representatives last the weekend prohibited the EPA from exercising that authority. Meanwhile, other bills are pending in Congress that would significantly delay the agency’s ability to regulate air pollutants.

AMA has a number of policies on the books regarding climate change, including a resolution supporting the EPA’s authority to regulate the control of greenhouse gases, and a statement endorsing findings from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concludes the Earth is undergoing adverse climate changes, and that humans are a significant contributor to the changing weather.

In that statement, the AMA said it supports educating the medical community about climate change and its health implications through medical education on topics such as “population displacement, heat waves and drought, flooding, infectious and vector-borne diseases, and potable water supplies.”

Healthcare Reform Law

A federal judge in Florida has ruled that the healthcare reform law is unconstitutional, siding with the 26 states that sued to block enforcement of the law.

The lawsuit, filed by 26 states that sued to block the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is considered likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Judge Roger Vinson, of the U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Fla., stopped short of directing the federal government to stop implementing the law. Still, the ruling is the harshest legal action yet against the ACA.

Unlike a ruling last month by a judge in Richmond, Va., stating that the individual mandate portion of the ACA violates the Constitution, Vinson ruled the entire law “void” because the individual mandate provision can’t be separated out from the rest of the law.

Congress “exceeded the bounds of its authority in passing the Act with the individual mandate,” Vinson wrote in his 78-page ruling, which was released Monday afternoon. The mandate requires all citizens to have health insurance by 2014 or else pay a penalty.

“Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void,” he concluded.

He did contend that Congress has the power to address the “problems and inequities in our health care system,” but that Congress overstepped its power in passing the ACA.

“There is widespread sentiment for positive improvements that will reduce costs, improve the quality of care, and expand availability in a way that the nation can afford,” Vinson wrote. “This is obviously a very difficult task. Regardless of how laudable its attempts may have been to accomplish these goals in passing the Act, Congress must operate within the bounds established by the Constitution.”