Health Highlights: Dec. 9, 2006
Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:
'Laser Surgery' Cost Greatly Reduced By Using High-Heat Lamps, Researchers Say
Israeli researchers say they've found a way to use laser surgery techniques to operate on malignant tumors at a fraction of the cost.
BBC News reports that instead of using an expensive laser beam, researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva have found that lamps that generate a lot of heat -- such as those used in movie projectors -- can be used with fiber optics to burn out cancerous tumors. Because the cost is so much cheaper, lead researcher Jeffrey Gordon said, this technique could be used by medical facilities throughout the world that couldn't afford the more highly-developed laser technology.
"We used a new generation of ultra-bright lamp - brighter than car headlamps - which can be harnessed if you develop the proper optic to harness it," the BBC quotes Gordon as saying. "We performed surgery on livers and kidneys of rats and the results were at least as good as the corresponding results one reads about in laser surgery. But our technique is 100 times cheaper."
The technique needs to be refined, the scientists said, by developing methods to make the surgery more infinitely precise, but the basic method is sound, they maintain.
Nations Pledge $475 Million Against Bird Flu
The world's nations have pledged an additional $475 million to fight bird flu, United Nations officials said in concluding a three-day avian flu conference in the African country of Mali.
The United States topped the list with a pledge of $100 million, followed by Canada ($92.5 million), the European Union ($88.2 million), and Japan ($67 million), the Agence France Presse news service reported.
At the last similar world meeting in January in Beijing, donors pledged $1 billion in loans and donations toward fighting bird flu. Experts have long feared that the current H5N1 strain could mutate from a deadly form that affects mostly birds to one that is more easily transmitted between people, sparking a human pandemic.
H5N1, primarily spread so far to people by contact with sick birds, has killed more than 150 people worldwide since late 2003, AFP said. The virus also has led to mass culls of tens of millions of domestic poultry.
Chewable Birth Control Pill Launched in U.S.
The first chewable birth control tablet in the United States was officially launched Thursday by drug maker Warner Chilcott.
The company says that Femcon Fe provides an option for women who don't like swallowing pills and want to carry their birth control with them. The chewable tablet, which is aimed at women who occasionally forget to take their pills, contains the same hormones as standard oral contraceptives, the Associated Press reported.
Femcon Fe is packaged in the typical 28-day cycle -- 21 days of active pills and seven days of inactive pills. Women must drink 8 ounces of water when taking a tablet. A month's supply will sell for $44 wholesale. The price will be slightly more at pharmacies.
The spearmint-flavored tablet can also be swallowed without chewing.
"This isn't a great leap forward, but I think this is a helpful step," Dr. Lee Shulman, chairman of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, told the AP.
Ebola Could Push Gorillas to Extinction
A strain of Ebola virus has killed about 5,500 gorillas in the Republic of Congo and Gabon since 2001. The virus, combined with hunting, may be enough to cause extinction of the great apes, says a study in the current issue of the journal Science.
European researchers looking into reports of large-scale gorilla deaths conducted an investigation at the Lossi Sanctuary in the Congo. Between 2002 and 2003, 93 percent of the gorillas in the sanctuary died, CBC News reported.
Tests on the remains of dead gorillas were positive for Ebola Zaire, one of the four strains of the virus. Chimpanzees in the region were also severely affected, with a 77 percent death rate due to Ebola.
"Ape species that were abundant and widely distributed a decade ago are rapidly being reduced to remnant populations," the researchers wrote. "Add commercial hunting to the mix, and we have a recipe for ecological disaster."
In humans, Ebola causes massive internal and external bleeding and kills about 90 percent of people who are infected with the virus. Since it was first recorded in 1976, Ebola has killed more than 1,200 people, CBC News reported.
Malaria/HIV Co-Infections Major Problem in Africa
Malaria and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are promoting each other's spread in sub-Saharan Africa, says a U.S. study published Friday in the journal Science.
Researchers identified a large overlap between the two diseases in the region, Agence France Presse reported.
Malaria helps to multiple by 10 times the amount of HIV in the blood of an HIV-infected person, which means that person is more likely to transmit HIV to a sex partner. And due to their compromised immune systems, people with HIV are more susceptible to malaria infection, the study said.
The researchers estimated that this kind of co-infection has resulted in millions of malaria cases and tens of thousands of HIV infections, AFP reported.
The findings suggest that other co-infections such as tuberculosis or genital herpes may also have contributed to the large numbers of HIV cases in Africa, the researchers said.
Smoking Boosts Men's Risk of Knee Arthritis
Smoking increases the risk of knee osteoarthritis in men, says a Mayo Clinic-led study in this week's online issue of the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.
Over 30 months, 159 men were given three MRI scans. The results showed that smokers had a faster loss of knee cartilage than non-smokers, CBC News reported.
Compared with men who never smoked or had quit, current smokers had a 2.3-fold increased risk of cartilage loss in the medial tibiofemoral joint, which connects the thighbone and shinbone. Smokers also had a 2.5-fold increased risk of cartilage loss at the patellofemoral joint, located between the knee cap and thigh bone.
"This is a novel finding. Previous studies showed no association between cigarette smoking and knee osteoarthritis or even a protective effect of smoking," said Dr. Shreyasee Amin, a clinical rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
He and his colleagues wrote that smoking "increases the levels of toxic substances in the blood and starves tissues of oxygen, which may hasten the loss of cartilage, " CBC News reported.
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