Health Highlights: Jan. 10, 2008

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

Women Need to Consume Folic Acid to Reduce Risk of Birth Defects

U.S. health officials are emphasizing the need for all women of childbearing age, especially those ages 18 to 24, to consume 400 micrograms of folic acid a day in order to prevent serious birth defects.

Consumption of folic acid, a B vitamin, results in a 50 percent to 70 percent reduced risk of neural tube defects, which affect the spine and brain and occur in about 3,000 pregnancies each year in the United States.

WHAT TO KNOW
    • Women Need to Consume Folic Acid to Reduce Risk of Birth Defects
    • Bird Flu Virus Called 'Stable'
    • Circulatory Problems Seen in Women Using Evra Birth Control Patch
    • Low Dose of Aspirin Effective in Treating Heart Attack: Study
    • Millions of Young People Use Cough Medicines to Get High
    • Most Doctors Say Error-Reporting Systems Are Inadequate

The recommendation is published in the Jan. 11 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A 2007 March of Dimes survey found that only 40 percent of women ages 18 to 45 reported daily consumption of folic acid. Women ages 18 to 24 had the lowest reported daily consumption (30 percent), and lower awareness (61 percent) and knowledge (6 percent) about folic acid than older women.

Efforts to promote folic acid intake need to focus on younger women because they account for about a third of all births to women ages 18 to 44 and have the highest rate of unintended pregnancies, the report said.

Another article in this week's MMWR noted that folic acid knowledge and consumption rates are declining among women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico. It also said that rates of neural tube defects in Puerto Rico are increasing, after an overall decline from 1996 through 2003.

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Bird Flu Virus Called 'Stable'

Programs to contain outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu virus have proven highly effective and the virus itself has remained remarkably stable, says Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organization for Animal Health.

Since H5N1 first appeared in 2003, many experts have worried the virus could mutate into a form easily transmitted between people and spark a global pandemic that could kill millions of people.

But Vallat said there's been no evidence of such a mutation in H5N1, Agence France-Presse reported.

"We have never seen a virus which has been so stable for so long. Compared to other viruses, it is extremely stable, which minimizes the risk of mutation" into a pandemic strain, he said.

Vallat also noted that a system to improve veterinary surveillance, especially in developing nations, has helped to quickly identify and eradicate H5N1 outbreaks in poultry flocks.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed 216 people, mostly in Asia, AFP reported.

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Circulatory Problems Seen in Women Using Evra Birth Control Patch

There have been 16 reported cases of blood clots and one heart attack, resulting in two deaths, among women using the Evra birth control patch since it was introduced in Canada in early 2004, says a report in a Health Canada newsletter.

"Health Canada is currently reviewing updated information for Evra and will notify health-care professionals and consumers as required," agency spokesman Alastair Sinclair said in an e-mail, the Canadian Press reported.

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