Health Highlights: April 28, 2008

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

Gene Therapy Helps People With Rare Form of Blindness

Scientists used gene therapy to improve vision in six people with a rare inherited disorder called Leber's congenital amaurosis, USA Today reported. The condition causes a gradual deterioration of eyesight beginning at birth, leading to blindness by a person's mid-20s.

While none of the six patients regained normal vision, four have much better eyesight than before the gene therapy, according to two studies published online in the New England Journal of Medicine. The studies were conducted by an international team led by doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

    • Gene Therapy Helps People With Rare Form of Blindness
    • Virus Outbreak in China Kills 20 Children
    • Philippines Banning Most Kidney Transplants for Foreigners
    • VA Official Denies Cover-Up of Veterans' Suicide Statistics
    • Blood Vessel Laser Scanner Gets U.S. Government Approval
    • Lexington, Ky. Tops 100 Spring Allergy Capitals

Experts hailed the achievement as a welcome success in gene therapy, which has shown promise but has had significant setbacks.

"It's a breakthrough. It really helps to validate that gene therapy can work and is going to be important," Ronald Crystal, chairman of the department of genetic medicine at New York's Weill Medical College of Cornell University, told USA Today.


Virus Outbreak in China Kills 20 Children

An outbreak of enterovirus 71 in eastern China has sickened nearly 1,200 children, killing 20, according to health officials in Anhui province, the Associated Press reported.

The first infections were noted in March in the city of Fuyang, but the virus may have gone undetected before that since the symptoms were similar to other common childhood illnesses, said Fen Lizhong, an official with the Anhui public health bureau.

Most of the stricken children were under two years old and none was older than six. About 371 children are still being treated and more than 550 have recovered, according to information on the health bureau's Web site, the AP reported.

This is the season when enterovirus 71 is prevalent. It's one of several viruses that cause hand, foot and mouth disease, which is characterized by fever, mouth sores and a rash with blisters. Enterovirus 71 is spread by direct contact with saliva, nose and throat discharges, fluid from blisters, or the stool of an infected person.


Philippines Banning Most Kidney Transplants for Foreigners

A permanent ban on most kidney transplants for foreign patients is expected to be announced this week by health officials in the Philippines, according to the Philippine Society of Nephrology.

Under the new law, foreign patients will not be able to receive a kidney from a living Filipino who isn't a blood relative, Agence France-Presse reported.

Last month, a temporary suspension of transplants to foreigners was announced, to give health officials time to create new guidelines for organ donations.

Many doctors and religious leaders have expressed concern about the widespread trafficking of kidneys from impoverished and poorly-educated Filipinos, who can sell a kidney to a foreigner for about $3,000, AFP reported.

In 2006, a total of 436 kidney transplants from unrelated living donors were carried out in 24 Philippine hospitals, according to government figures.


VA Official Denies Cover-Up of Veterans' Suicide Statistics

A Department of Veterans Affairs official has testified that his agency has not tried to cover up the number of suicides committed by veterans, the Associated Press reports.

Testifying last Thursday at a trial in a San Francisco federal court, VA undersecretary for health Dr. Michael Kussman said the discrepancy in the number of suicides his agency reported to Congress and the number found in VA documents was because of different veteran categories included in the statistics.

VA Secretary James Peake had reported in February that 144 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide between October 2001 and December 2005, the AP reports. But the plaintiffs' lawyer produced internal VA e-mails indicating that 18 veterans a day were committing suicide, the wire service says.

The discrepancy, Kussman testified, is that the internal emails included all 26 million veterans, and that Vietnam veterans were killing themselves in increasing numbers, possibly because of having more health problems as they age. The lawsuit was brought by two veterans groups who allege government neglect in providing timely and adequate health care for returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, the AP reports.

"I disagree with the premise that there was some effort to cover something up," the wire service quotes Kussman as testifying. "We don't obfuscate."


Blood Vessel Laser Scanner Gets U.S. Government Approval

After its initial submission for approval more than two years ago, a cardiac catheter using a laser to scan for the best place to implant a stent has received U.S. government approval, the New York Times reports.

The LipiScan laser catheter, made by InfraReDx of Burlington, Mass., will be able to show images of arterial walls and help doctors keep from placing coronary stents in arteries that could actually cause a heart attack, the newspaper reports.

Stents are thin, metal mesh tubes placed in a blocked blood vessel -- usually an artery -- in a procedure called angioplasty that opens up the artery, providing better blood flow. One of the problems in stent implanting, the Times reports, is that an improperly placed stent could cause the rupturing of vessel walls called lipid pools. When a lipid pool ruptures, a heart attack is likely to occur, the newspaper reports.

The LipiScan emits a laser light that can give a clearer image of lipids in blood vessel walls, which should help surgeons determine where to place a stent or to decide whether angioplasty is actually necessary, the Times says.


Lexington, Ky. Tops 100 Spring Allergy Capitals


Lexington, Ky., sits atop the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's 2008 ranking of the leading 100 spring allergy capitals.

Trailing Lexington on the annual list are: Greensboro, N.C.; Johnson City, Tenn.; Augusta, Ga.; and Jackson, Miss.

Least likely to make you sneeze and wheeze among the top 100 is Spokane, Wash, preceded by the California cities of San Francisco and Bakersfield, Sarasota, Fla; and Lancaster, Penn.

Spring is the worst season for many of the more than 35 million Americans with hay fever, medically called allergic rhinitis. The AAFA said it based the rankings on criteria including seasonal pollen counts, use of over-the-counter and prescription allergy drugs, and the number of board certified allergists in each city.