Health Highlights: March 6, 2008

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

U.S. Agrees to Make Payment in Vaccine Injury Case

U.S. health officials have agreed that childhood vaccines given a young Georgia girl worsened an underlying disorder that led to autism-like symptoms and say she should be compensated from a federal vaccine-injury fund, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

The decision is significant because, while the government has not conceded that vaccines cause autism, parents and advocates for children with the disorder see the decision as a victory that may help thousands of other families with claims that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once widely used in vaccines, may cause autism.

    • U.S. Agrees to Make Payment in Vaccine Injury Case
    • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Patterns Vary Among States: Report
    • Falls a Serious Health Threat for Older Americans
    • Patrick Swayze Faces Tough Struggle Against Pancreatic Cancer
    • 2 More Colorectal Cancer Tests Endorsed
    • U.S. Men Doing More Housework, Which May Lead to More Sex
    • Thursday Is World Glaucoma Day

The government "has not conceded that vaccines cause autism," Linda Renzi, the lawyer representing U.S. officials, told the AP. Federal health officials have consistently maintained that childhood vaccinations are safe, and several studies have discounted any link between thimerosal and autism, despite other pending claims.

According to documents obtained by the AP, five vaccines the girl received on one day in 2000 aggravated a previous condition, predisposing her to problems that manifested as worsening brain function "with features of autism spectrum disorder." The term "autism spectrum disorder" was created in the 1990s to encompass autism and a group of milder, related conditions.

The documents, the AP said, do not address whether it was the thimerosal -- or something else in the vaccines -- that was at fault.

The compensation fund, which is run by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, lists problems with brain function, such as the girl had, as a rare side effect of certain vaccines. Those problems are enough by themselves to warrant compensation, the AP reported, even without autism-like symptoms. The fund has already made payouts in such cases, the wire service added.

The girl's parents have declined to comment, because the case is not final, and the payment amount has not been set, the AP said.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Patterns Vary Among States: Report

There are wide variations between states in behaviors such as illicit drug use, underage drinking and psychological distress, says a U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report released Thursday.

For example, past month underage drinking (by those ages 12-20) ranged from a high of 38.3 percent in Vermont to a low of 21.5 percent in Utah. However, Utah had the highest level of adults reporting serious psychological distress in the past year (14.4 percent), while Hawaii had the lowest rate (8.8 percent).

The State Estimates of Substance Use report is based on data from the 2005-06 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among other findings in the report:

  • Past month underage binge drinking was highest in North Dakota (28.5 percent) and lowest in Georgia (15.2 percent).
  • Past month use of illicit drugs for people age 12 or older was highest in Rhode Island (11.2 percent) and lowest in North Dakota (5.7 percent).
  • Utah had the lowest past month use of marijuana among people age 12 or older (4.3 percent), while Vermont had the highest (9.7 percent).
  • Oklahoma had the highest rate (6.7 percent) of past year use by people age 12 or older of pain relievers for non-medical reasons, while Hawaii, New Jersey, and South Dakota had the lowest rate (3.9 percent).
  • The District of Columbia had the highest rate (12.3 percent) of substance abuse disorders (either drug or alcohol dependence or abuse), while New Jersey had the lowest (7.5 percent). The highest rate of illicit drug dependence or abuse was in the District of Columbia (4.3 percent) and the lowest was in Iowa (2.1 percent). The highest rate of alcohol dependence or abuse was in Montana (10.8 percent), while the lowest was in Kentucky (6.3 percent).
  • Nevada had the highest rate of people age 18 or older reporting at least one major depressive episode in the past year (9.4 percent), while Hawaii had the lowest (5.0 percent).


Falls a Serious Health Threat for Older Americans

In 2006, about 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older reported falling at least once in the previous three months, and 1.8 million reported sustaining some type of fall-related injury that required a visit to a doctor or restricted activity for at least a day, according to this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The authors said the statistics reinforce the need to raise awareness and to provide effective interventions for falls, which can cause injuries that can seriously impair older adults' quality of life and add a significant burden to the health care system.

The report also found that while there was no difference in the percentage of men and women who reported falling, about 36 percent of women sustained injuries from their falls, compared to about 25 percent of men.

To help older adults lead independent, healthy lives, the CDC offers two free publications.

One is called Preventing Falls: What Works. A Compendium of Effective Community-Based Interventions From Around the World. The other publication is called Preventing Falls; How to Develop Community-Based Falls Prevention Programs for Older Adults.

Both publications are available on the CDC Web site at


Patrick Swayze Faces Tough Struggle Against Pancreatic Cancer

Doctors say actor Patrick Swayze faces a difficult fight after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, ABC News reported.

"Patrick has a very limited amount of disease and he appears to be responding well to treatment thus far," George Fisher, Swayze's doctor, said in a prepared statement released by the actor's publicists.

People with pancreatic cancer have about a five percent chance of being alive five years after diagnosis, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute. One reason for the poor prognosis is that there's no reliable screening method for pancreatic cancer.

"Sixty (percent) to 70 percent of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed in the most advanced stage -- when it has spread to other organs -- and we have, at best, minimally effective therapies for advance pancreatic cancer," William Blackstock, professor of radiation oncology at the Wake Forest University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., told ABC News.

"In most cases we don't even get a chance to cure it; at the time of presentation and the clinical manifestation of the symptoms, the cat's already out of the bag," noted Andrew Warshaw, surgeon-in-chief at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston. "For 80-plus percent, maybe even 90 percent of people at the time diagnosis is first made, there is nothing beyond palliative care to help them," he told ABC News.


2 More Colorectal Cancer Tests Endorsed

Two tests not previously endorsed to prevent or detect colorectal cancer are now being recommended by the American Cancer Society and other groups, The New York Times reported.

The groups said there's evidence that these two tests -- virtual colonoscopy and a DNA test -- are effective enough to recommend for all adults 50 and older and for some younger people with symptoms or risk factors for colorectal cancer. They're now among several testing options available for patients. Experts hope that offering more choices will boost the number of people who get screened for colorectal cancer.

Virtual colonoscopy uses a CT scan to search for abnormal growths. Unlike standard colonoscopy, it doesn't require insertion of a camera-tipped tube into the rectum. The second newly recommended test looks for abnormal DNA associated with cancer. It requires an entire bowel movement to be collected from a patient and sent to a laboratory, the Times reported.

In 2008, it's expected there will be 148,810 new colorectal cancer cases and 49,960 deaths in the United States. It's the second leading cause of cancer death in the country.


U.S. Men Doing More Housework, Which May Lead to More Sex

While American men still don't do their fair share of household chores, they are getting better, says a report released Thursday by the Council on Contemporary Families. And one expert suggested that men who do help out around the house get more sex.

The authors of the report analyzed several recent studies on family dynamics in the United States. One study said there was a tripling of the amount of time men spent on child care over the past four decades, while another study concluded that the amount of housework done by men doubled over the same period, the Associated Press reported.

"More couples are sharing family tasks than ever before, and the movement toward sharing has been especially significant for full-time, dual-earner couples," the report said. "Men and women may not be fully equal yet, but the rules of the game have been profoundly and irreversibly changed."

Equitable division of household chores can make for a happier marriage and boost a couple's sex life, said Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco-area psychologist affiliated with the Council on Contemporary Families.

"If a guy does housework, it looks to the woman like he really cares about her -- he's not treating her like a servant," Coleman told the AP. "And if a woman feels stressed out because the house is a mess and the guy's sitting on the couch while she's vacuuming, that's not going to put her in the mood."


Thursday Is World Glaucoma Day

Thursday is the first World Glaucoma Day and experts are urging all people over age 40 and those with other risk factors for the disease to take steps to recognize and understand the potentially devastating consequences of the disease.

In people with glaucoma, a buildup of pressure from fluid inside the eye damages the optic nerve, which carries visual signals from the eye to the brain, the Dayton Daily News reported.

Glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in the world, affects at least three million Americans, according to the American Glaucoma Society. But about 50 percent of people with glaucoma don't know they have it, and 50 percent of people diagnosed with the disease don't receive treatment until they've already suffered irreversible vision loss.

World Glaucoma Day is a joint initiative of the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association.

"World Glaucoma Day offers an opportunity to send a clear message that taking action to diagnose and treat glaucoma may help prevent permanent vision loss in patients with the disease," Dr. Robert Weinreb, president of the American Glaucoma Society, said in a prepared statement. "Individuals over age 40 or those who have other risk factors for glaucoma should have regular, comprehensive eye exams that include evaluation of the optic nerve and measurement of eye pressure."