Health Highlights: April 4, 2007

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

Foundation Pledges $500 Million to Fight Childhood Obesity

Over the next five years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation plans to spend more than $500 million to reverse the alarming increase in childhood obesity in the United States, making it one of the largest public health efforts ever launched by a private philanthropy.

The foundation will fund a number of initiatives, including: programs to improve access to healthy food and to encourage the development of safe play spaces; obesity research; and efforts to push governments to address the problem, The New York Times reported.

    • Foundation Pledges $500 Million to Fight Childhood Obesity
    • Low-Dose Steroid Helps Prolong Multiple Myeloma Survival: Study
    • Wal-Mart Ensures Access to Birth Control
    • Joan of Arc's Bone Actually From Egyptian Mummy
    • Test Can Help Verify Organic Foods
    • New Cancer Cases to Double by 2030: Report
    • Depression During Pregnancy May Increase Risk for Early Birth

"This is an epidemic that is going to cost the country in terms of morbidity and mortality and economically. The younger generation is going to live sicker and die younger than their parents because of obesity," said Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the foundation's president and chief executive.

She noted that many obese children are poor. They have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and live in neighborhoods where it's not safe to play outside, the Times reported.

"In many cases, the environment makes it almost impossible for them to choose healthy lifestyles. We're going to try to change that," Lavizzo-Mourey said.

In the United States, about one-third (25 million) of all children 17 and younger are obese or overweight, according to Census Bureau data and a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Low-Dose Steroid Helps Prolong Multiple Myeloma Survival: Study

Preliminary results from a large U.S. study of patients with newly diagnosed multiple myeloma found that a low dose of the steroid dexamethasone (brand named Decadron), in combination with lenalidomide (brand name Revlimid), improved survival when compared to a treatment regimen with lenalidomide and a higher, standard dose of dexamethasone.

Researchers reported Wednesday that patients in the study who received low-dose dexamethasone and lenalidomide had a one-year survival of 96 percent, compared to 86 percent for patients treated with the standard-dose of dexamethasone and lenalidomide. Also, there were fewer side effects associated with the low-dose dexamethasone and lenalidomide, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

Lenalidomide, a derivative of thalidomide, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006 to be used in tandem with dexamethasone for the treatment of multiple myeloma in patients who had received at least one prior therapy for their disease. Dexamethasone is a steroid that acts as an anti-inflammatory and as an immunosuppressant.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells that are found in blood and bone marrow. In 2007, an estimated 19,900 people in the United States will be diagnosed with multiple myeloma and an estimated 10,790 people will die of the disease.

Results of the new study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, will be presented in June at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago. But the researchers released the findings early because they were so promising.


Wal-Mart Ensures Access to Birth Control

Wal-Mart has revised its U.S. corporate policy to ensure that customers receive emergency contraception and other forms of birth control without discrimination, delay or judgment, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA).

The group said Wal-Mart's assurances, contained in a survey the company returned to PPFA on Wednesday, were in response to PPFA's grassroots advocacy campaign "Fill My Pills Now."

"This is a huge victory for women's health and for Planned Parenthood's campaign for accessible birth control," PPFA President Cecile Richards said in a prepared statement. "We're pleased that Wal-Mart has changed its policy to meet the real-life health-care needs of women and families."

"With its new and improved policy, Wal-Mart joins other women-friendly pharmacy chains like CVS, Eckerd and Medicine Shoppe, RiteAid and Walgreens," Richards said. "Our Planned Parenthood Pill Patrol will continue to focus on getting more major retailers to follow in Wal-Mart's footsteps -- including Target, Giant, Safeway and Winn Dixie, which have a long way to go."


Joan of Arc's Bone Actually From Egyptian Mummy

A rib bone purported to be from Joan of Arc is actually from an Egyptian mummy, say scientists who used high-tech tests to learn the truth about the fake relic, the Associated Press reported.

The rib bone was dated to between the seventh and third centuries B.C. The scientists also found pine pollen, likely from resin used in Egyptian embalming. In medieval times, powdered mummy remains were used as medicine.

The bone was purported to have been recovered after Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France, in 1431. In 1909, some scientists declared that it was "highly probable" that the rib bone came from Joan of Arc, who was beatified that same year and canonized as a saint in 1920 by the Roman Catholic Church, the AP reported.

It's possible that the rib bone was touted as coming from Joan of Arc to boost her recognition by the church, suggested research team leader Philippe Charlier. The finding that the bone was a fake was first reported in the journal Nature.


Test Can Help Verify Organic Foods

A test that could help verify whether food that's labeled organic is authentic has been developed by British researchers.

The test checks for differences in the nitrogen isotope composition of foods. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is widely used in conventional agriculture but forbidden in organic agriculture.

The researchers said their test detected differences in organically and conventionally grown tomatoes, lettuce and carrots. The results appear in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Currently, authentication of organic foods relies on enforcement of production standards through certification and inspection, which involves a paper trail from the farm to the plate, the researchers noted. This new test could be used to provide additional confirmation that products are organic in order to protect consumers and honest growers.


New Cancer Cases to Double by 2030: Report

Between 2000 and 2030, the number of cancer cases diagnosed worldwide each year will more than double, and most of the increase will occur in developing nations, says the director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In 2000, the agency estimated 11 million newly diagnosed cancer cases worldwide, seven million cancer deaths, and 25 million people living with cancer. By 2030, the agency estimates there will be 27 million newly diagnosed cancer cases, 17 million cancer deaths, and 75 million people living with cancer, the Associated Press reported.

Population growth, longer life expectancies, and increased prevalence of cancer risk factors such as smoking and alcohol in developing countries are among the reasons for the expected increase in cancer cases, said Dr. Peter Boyle, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

"We've been concentrating on cancer in high-resource countries and until essentially AIDS came along, we haven't looked too closely at what's going on in low-resource countries," Boyle said at a news conference Tuesday.

He said research has shown an increasing shift of cancer to poor countries, the AP reported.


Depression During Pregnancy May Increase Risk for Early Birth

Women who suffer depression during pregnancy may be more likely to give birth early, says a British study presented at an Institute of Psychiatry meeting.

The small study compared 25 pregnant women with major depression (but not on medication) to a control group of 35 women without depression. On average, the mothers with depression gave birth two days earlier than the mothers without depression. The study also said that three of the mothers with depression had a premature birth (under 37 weeks gestation). None of the mothers in the control group had a premature birth, BBC News reported.

The study also found that the depressed mothers had much higher levels of the stress hormone corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which is known to initiate birth. CRH is also naturally secreted by the placenta during pregnancy.

When the researchers checked the women's babies eight weeks after birth, they found that the babies born to mothers who were depressed during pregnancy had elevated levels of another stress hormone called cortisol, BBC News reported.

Experts noted that depression is common during pregnancy and that a possible link between depression during pregnancy and early birth needs to be examined in a larger study.