Health Highlights: May 14, 2007

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

Gender Disparity Found in Heart Disease and Diabetes Care

In the United States, women with heart disease and diabetes are less likely than men to receive several kinds of routine outpatient medical care, a new study says.

The study of more than 50,000 people enrolled in both commercial and Medicare managed care plans in 1999 looked at 11 different screening tests, treatments or measurements of health status important to people with diabetes or heart disease.

WHAT TO KNOW
    • Gender Disparity Found in Heart Disease and Diabetes Care
    • Country Walks Boost Mental Health: Study
    • HIV/AIDS Programs Fail to Reach Drug Users
    • Vitamin D May Help Fight Tuberculosis
    • Tumor Blocker Found to Prevent Growth of Breast Cancer Enzyme

Among people enrolled in commercial health plans, women were much less likely than men to receive care in six of the 11 measures, while women in Medicare plans were less likely than men to receive care in four of the 11 measures.

The greatest gender disparity was in cholesterol control. Women with diabetes were 19 percent less likely than men to have their cholesterol within recommended ranges if they were in Medicare plans and 16 percent less likely if they were in commercial plans.

Women were also less likely to be prescribed ACE inhibitor drugs for chronic heart failure or to be prescribed beta blocker drugs after a heart attack, the study said.

The RAND Corporation study is published in the May/June issue of the journal Women's Health Issues.

"These were all insured people. They all had access to medical care and they were all diagnosed with these diseases. The disparities cannot be explained by a lack of patient reporting or not recognizing the symptoms of a disease," study lead author Chloe Bird, a sociologist at RAND, said in a prepared statement.

More research needs to be done to determine why there are gender differences in outpatient care for people with heart disease and diabetes, Bird said. RAND is a nonprofit research organization.

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Country Walks Boost Mental Health: Study

A walk in the country can help ease depression and boost self-esteem, according to a study released Monday by Mind, a mental health charity in England and Wales.

The group said the findings support the idea that this kind of "ecotherapy" should become a recognized treatment for people with mental health problems.

The University of Essex study looked at 20 people who went for a 30-minute stroll in a country park, and then did another walk in a shopping center, The Independent newspaper reported.

After the country stroll, 71 percent of the participants reported reduced levels of depression and tension, and 90 percent reported a boost in self-esteem. In contrast, only 45 percent said they felt reduced levels of depression after walking in the shopping center, and 22 percent said they actually felt more depressed.

Ecotherapy will someday play an important role in mental health treatments, said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind.

"It is a credible, clinically valid treatment option and needs to be prescribed by GPs, especially when for many people access to treatments other than antidepressants is extremely limited," Farmer said. "We're not saying that ecotherapy can replace drugs but that the debate needs to be broadened."

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HIV/AIDS Programs Fail to Reach Drug Users

The failure to deal with HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users compromises the worldwide fight against the disease, a UNAIDS official said Monday at a news conference in Warsaw, Poland.

To be effective, programs that target HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, need to reach about 80 percent of injection drug users, said the agency that coordinates the United Nations' battle against HIV/AIDS.

But UNAIDS said that HIV prevention and treatment programs reach only about eight percent of the world's 13 million intravenous drug users, Agence France Presse reported.

About half the world's injection drug users are in Asia.

That low percentage has serious consequences.

"About 10 percent of all new HIV infections worldwide are attributable to injecting drug use. If you exclude Africa, that figure rises to 30 percent," Prasada Rao, UNAIDS' regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said at the news conference. "Evidence shows that HIV prevention programs are particularly effective among people who inject drugs, but they are regularly denied access to information and services."

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Vitamin D May Help Fight Tuberculosis

Vitamin D may help protect against tuberculosis, says a British study that found that the vitamin boosts the body's ability to fight the growth of mycobacteria that cause TB.

Researchers took blood samples from 131 people and then divided them into two groups. One group received a 2.5 milligram dose of vitamin D, while the other group received a placebo, BBC News reported.

Six weeks later, the researchers took more blood samples and infected the samples with mycobacteria. An analysis conducted 24 hours later showed there was 20 percent less mycobacteria growth in the blood samples of the people who took vitamin D than in the samples from those who took the placebo.

The study appears in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The researchers said their findings suggest that vitamin D could be used as a preventive treatment for people at high risk for TB, BBC News reported.

"This shows that a simple, cheap supplement could make a significant impact on the health of people most at risk from the disease," lead researcher Dr. Adrian Martineau said.

Vitamin D was used to treat TB before the development of antibiotics. TB kills about two million people worldwide each year.

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Tumor Blocker Found to Prevent Growth of Breast Cancer Enzyme

A team of Canadian scientists says it has found a way to block an enzyme that promotes the growth of breast cancer tumors, BBC News reports.

McGill University researchers report in the latest edition of Nature Genetics that the enzyme PTP1B appears to promote uncontrolled cell growth in the breast, which can produce cancerous tumors. Using laboratory mice, the scientists were able to use a drug developed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck and Co. that blocks PTP1B development.

This method could prevent up to 40 percent of breast cancer malignancy, the researchers said. The possibility of combining it with the breast cancer drug Herceptin might improve effectiveness, according to the study leader, Michel Tremblay, a professor at McGill's Department of Medical Biology.

"It's another tool to tackle cancers... however it won't cure cancer alone," BBC News quotes Tremblay as saying. "Combined with Herceptin, it may provide a 'two-way kill'."