Health Highlights: Sept. 6, 2007

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

Pavarotti, Opera Superstar, Dead at 71

Luciano Pavarotti, the charismatic opera star who enjoyed worldwide acclaim, died Thursday morning at his home in the northern Italian city of Modena.

The 71-year-old tenor, one of the few opera singers to win widespread fame as a popular superstar, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year. He was released from an Italian hospital on Aug. 25 and was undergoing treatment at his home until his death, BBC News reported.

    • Pavarotti, Opera Superstar, Dead at 71
    • Students and Parents Get Low Marks on Hand Washing
    • Teen Use of Illicit Drugs Declining: Survey
    • Fresh Tomatoes Source of Salmonella: CDC
    • Global Warming May Worsen Heart Problems: Experts
    • FDA Panel Recommends HIV Drug's Approval
    • Britain to Allow Creation of Hybrid Embryos

Pavarotti came down with respiratory problems during the summer while on vacation at his villa on the Adriatic coast. He had undergone five rounds of chemotherapy since his cancer surgery last year, the BBC said.

Pavarotti, who was said to be planning a farewell tour, last sang in public in Italy in 2006 during opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Turin.

Pavarotti enjoyed mingling with pop stars in his series of charity concerts, "Pavarotti & Friends," held annually in Modena. He performed with artists as varied as Ricky Martin, James Brown and the Spice Girls, the Associated Press reported.

The performances raised some eyebrows but he always dismissed the criticism.

Some say the "word 'pop' is a derogatory word to say 'not important' -- I do not accept that," Pavarotti told the AP in a 2004 interview. "If the word 'classic' is the word to say 'boring,' I do not accept. There is good and bad music."

Pavarotti also enjoyed chart-topping success as part of the "Three Tenors," which included fellow opera stars Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.


Students, Parents Get Low Marks on Hand Washing

The average student in the United States earns only a "D" when it comes to understanding and practicing basic hand hygiene, according to this year's annual report card from the Soap and Detergent Association.

Parents fared slightly better, getting an overall grade of "C." Moms averaged out at "B-," while Dads earned only a "D+," the trade group said in a statement.

School nurses and health professionals surveyed earned the highest average marks at "B+," while teachers were awarded a "B-."

The group's 2007 "Clean Hands Report Card" was based on telephone interviews and on-site surveys.

The SDA offered this refresher course on effective hand washing:

  • Wet hands with warm running water before using soap.
  • With soap, rub hands together to a lather, away from the running water.
  • Wash the front and back of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails for at least 20 seconds.
  • Rinse well under warm running water.
  • Dry hands well with either a clean towel or air dryer.
  • Hand sanitizers or wipes will suffice if soap and water aren't available.


Teen Use of Illicit Drugs Declining: Survey

Use of illicit drugs fell to 9.8 percent in 2006 among American teens, down from 11.6 percent in 2002, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said Thursday.

Marijuana use among youth ages 12 to 17 fell significantly to 6.7 percent last year from 8.2 percent in 2002, the agency said in a statement. Underage drinking, however, was unchanged from 2002 at 28.3 percent in 2006.

On the other hand, the agency said it was concerned about an upswing in misuse among young people of prescription drugs, notably painkillers. Some 6.4 percent of adolescents abused prescription drugs in 2006, up from 5.4 percent in 2002.

In general, 22.6 million people aged 12 and older had either substance abuse or dependency problems in the last year, SAMHSA's 2006 survey found. Of those, 3.2 million abused both alcohol and illicit drugs, 3.8 million abused illicit drugs but not alcohol, and 15.6 million abused alcohol but not illicit drugs.

Some 2.5 million people in the United States received treatment for substance abuse at specialty facilities in 2006, the agency said.


Fresh Tomatoes Source of Salmonella: CDC

As many as 190 confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning from eating contaminated fresh tomatoes were reported in four multi-state outbreaks last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

And because about 97.5 percent of salmonella infections are never confirmed by culture, the number of people sickened from contaminated tomatoes was probably substantially higher, the CDC said.

Last year's outbreaks originated from producers in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Sources may have included feces from domestic animals, and contaminated ponds or drainage ditches, the agency said. About 5 billion pounds of fresh tomatoes are eaten each year in the United States.

To help lessen their risk of salmonella infection, consumers should avoid buying bruised or damaged tomatoes, the CDC said. All tomatoes, regardless of their source, should be thoroughly washed under running water just before eating. Tomatoes that appear spoiled should be thrown out, and cut, peeled, or cooked tomatoes should be refrigerated at 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C) within two hours or discarded.


Global Warming May Worsen Heart Problems: Experts

The human heart may be the latest known casualty of global warming, some experts attending a cardiology conference in Vienna say.

"If it really is a few degrees warmer in the next 50 years, we could definitely have more cardiovascular disease," the Associated Press quoted Dr. Karin Schenck-Gustafsson, a cardiologist at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, as saying at the European Society of Cardiology's annual meeting.

As the human body sweats in higher temperatures, blood is sent to the skin where temperatures are cooler, the wire service explained. This opens up blood vessels, increases a person's heart rate and drops blood pressure. This sequence of events can be dangerous for older people, especially those with heart problems.

Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, chief of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University, likened the hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis) to rust that forms on a car. "Rust develops much more quickly at warm temperatures, and so does atherosclerosis," he said.

But because of all of the uncertainties about the effects and pace of global warming, and a lack of positive proof of a connection between climate change and heart problems, "there are too many unknowns to make predictions about how many more people will have heart problems in the future," the AP reported.


FDA Panel Recommends HIV Drug's Approval

An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has unanimously recommended that the full agency approve Merck & Co.'s HIV drug Isentress (raltegravir) for people who are running out of treatment options, the Associated Press reports.

Isentress is among a new class of antiviral drugs called integrase inhibitors, which target an enzyme that allows the AIDS-causing virus to infect cells and reproduce itself. It's meant to be included among a "cocktail" of medications to combat HIV in people who have become resistant to other medications, the wire service said.

In two recent trials, the drug "reduced the virus to almost undetectable levels" after four months in as many as 62 percent of patients who took it in combination with other HIV medications, the Bloomberg news service said. That compared with up to 36 percent of patients who took a non-medicinal placebo along with the other HIV treatments.

A decision about Isentress from the full FDA is likely by next month. While the agency isn't bound by the recommendations of its expert panels, it usually follows them.


Britain to Allow Creation of Hybrid Embryos

The British agency that oversees human embryo research is prepared to permit creation of embryos for experimental use that are part human, part animal, the Washington Post reports.

Researchers hope to determine whether such hybrid embryos could yield embryonic stem cells that may aid them in developing therapies for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The embryos would be created by injecting human DNA into cow or rabbit eggs, whose own DNA has mostly been removed, the newspaper said.

Currently, embryos used for research generally have come from women treated with hormones. But in order to harvest stem cells, these embryos must be destroyed, which has raised ethical concerns.

In 2001, U.S. President George Bush limited federal funding for research to only stem-cell lines that existed at the time. Researchers have since found that many of those lines are contaminated.

The new ruling by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority said it acknowledged the concerns of opponents who feared "the specter of rogue scientists growing the embryos into weird human-animal creatures," the Post reported.

In a statement, the agency said the decision was not "a total green light" for hybrid research, "but recognition that this area of research can, with caution and careful scrutiny, be permitted."