Health Highlights: Aug. 31, 2009

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

Docs to Watch for Guillain-Barré After H1N1 Vaccine

Neurologists should be on the lookout for any signs of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in people vaccinated against H1N1 swine flu, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Neurology announced Monday.

Experts do not expect the 2009 H1N1 vaccine to increase risk of the rare disorder, but are acting out "an abundance of caution," according to a news release from the American Academy of Neurology. Because of its association with the 1976 swine flu vaccine, GBS could be of greater concern with any pandemic vaccine, the release said.

    • Docs to Watch for Guillain-Barré After H1N1 Vaccine
    • Workouts Trump Angioplasty for Heart Woes, Experts Say
    • Gulf Coast Births Fell Post-Katrina
    • U.N. Wary of Swine Flu in Birds

"The active participation of neurologists is going to be critical for monitoring for any possible increase in GBS following 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccination," said Dr. Orly Avitzur, who is directing the AAN effort. The request comes as part of the CDC's national vaccine safety monitoring campaign.

The H1N1 vaccine is still in production. Officials expect that vaccination of high-risk groups -- including health-care workers, infants, children and young adults ages 6 months through 24 years, pregnant women and adults with underlying health conditions -- will start this fall.

In GBS, the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, causing tingling and weakness in the extremities. It is usually, but not always, treatable.

Neurologists and other health-care professionals should use the CDC and FDA Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to report any post-vaccination adverse events, the announcement said.


Workouts Trump Angioplasty for Heart Woes, Experts Say

There's mounting evidence that exercise may be a better fix for clogged arteries than angioplasty, although persuading patients to be more physically active is the tough part, experts said at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology on Sunday.

For example, one 2004 study, led by Rainer Hambrtecht of Klinikum Links der Weser in Bremen, Germany, found that nine out of 10 heart patients who bicycled regularly rid themselves of their cardiovascular troubles a year after beginning the exercise program, compared to 70 percent of patients who got angioplasty but didn't exercise.

"It's difficult to convince people to exercise instead of having an angioplasty, but it works," said Hambrecht, who spoke to the Associated Press from the meeting held in Barcelona, Spain.

Other research has shown that a third of heart attacks and strokes -- 280,000 U.S. heart deaths -- might be prevented if patients walked briskly for a total of 2.5 hours a week. However, experts say that less than 20 percent of heart patients get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise five times weekly.

Exercise lowers artery-clogging LDL (bad) cholesterol while boosting levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, it helps the body deal with sugar better, and it breathes new health into blood vessel walls, the AP noted.

But getting patients to get up off the couch and exercise regularly is a tough sell when compared to getting an angioplasty, which involves opening arteries with a tiny balloon and then inserting a mesh tube called a stent. These operations typically take less than a day in the hospital.

"Most patients want the quick fix," Dr. Christopher Cannon, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University and spokesman for the American College of Cardiology, told the AP. "It's a lot easier to get your artery fixed than it is to exercise every day."


Gulf Coast Births Fell Post-Katrina

Births plummeted in most of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in the 12 months after the catastrophic storm, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found.

Overall, in 14 coastal counties and parishes of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, births declined 19 percent in the year after the hurricane compared with the year before the storm, according to a review of birth certificates filed in Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated areas of the Gulf Coast.

In the selected parishes of Louisiana, births dropped 30 percent and in Mississippi, 13 percent. But births increased 6 percent in the selected areas of Alabama.

Other findings:

Births in the chosen parishes of Louisiana plunged 51 percent among non-Hispanic black women, 21 percent for Hispanic women, 34 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders and 14 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

Among non-Hispanic black women in Orleans Parish, the central parish of New Orleans, the proportion of total births fell from 78 percent before the storm to 60 percent afterward.

The proportion of teen births was unchanged, except in the Louisiana counties where teen births fell 11 percent.


U.N. Wary of Swine Flu in Birds

Now that the H1N1 swine flu has spread to turkeys in Chile, the United Nations is concerned that poultry farms around the world could become infected, BBC News reports.

Although swine flu is no deadlier than the seasonal flu, scientists worry that it could mix with more dangerous strains. Already it has spread from humans to pigs. Last week's discovery of the virus in turkeys on two farms near the seaport of Valparaiso may be a "spillover" from farm workers, experts believe.

Up to now, no cases of H5N1 bird flu have emerged in flocks in Chile. But, "the introduction of H1N1 in these populations would be of greater concern," said Juan Lubroth, interim chief veterinary officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. "In Southeast Asia there is a lot of the (H5N1) virus circulating in poultry.

Colin Butter from the Institute for Animal Health in England agrees. "We hope it is a rare event, and we must monitor closely what happens next," he told BBC News.

"However, it is not just about the H5N1 strain. Any further spread of the H1N1 virus between birds, or from birds to humans would not be good," Butter said.

"It might make the virus harder to control, because it would be more likely to change," he said.