Health Highlights: Dec. 9, 2008

Dec. 10 -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Cutbacks Affecting U.S. Health Preparedness: Report

Previous progress made in preparing to deal with disease outbreaks, natural disasters and bioterrorism in the United States is being threatened by the economic crisis and budget cuts, a new report contends.

The sixth annual "Ready or Not?" report, released Tuesday by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also found that major gaps remain in many critical areas of emergency preparedness, including food safety and rapid disease detection, MarketWatch reported.

Ten key indicators were used to score states on their health preparedness. More than half of the states and the District of Columbia achieved no more than seven out of the 10 indicators. Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin scored 10 out of 10, while Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Montana and Nebraska tied for lowest, 5 out of 10.

The United States' food safety system hasn't been fundamentally modernized in more than 100 years, the report said. Twenty states and D.C. didn't meet or exceed the national average rate for being able to identify pathogens responsible for food-borne disease outbreaks in their states, MarketWatch reported.

Twenty-four states and D.C. don't have the capacity to deliver and receive lab specimens, such as suspected bioterror agents or new disease outbreak samples, on a 24/7 basis, the report added.

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Recession Putting Burden on Emergency Departments

An increasing number of unemployed and uninsured Americans are seeking treatment in hospital emergency departments, causing overcrowding that could make it difficult for the centers to handle such medical emergencies as heart attacks and trauma injuries, according to an American College of Emergency Physicians report released Tuesday.

Even before the recession, overcrowding in many U.S. emergency departments meant long patient waits and the frequent need to redirect ambulances to other hospitals, The New York Times reported.

"We have no capacity now. There's no way we have room for any more people to come to the table," said Dr. Angela F. Gardner, president-elect of the ACEP, who added that any public dialogue about overhauling the current health system has to include emergency departments.

The unemployed and uninsured are resorting to emergency departments because the departments must see all patients who enter their doors, regardless of ability to pay. But emergency departments are also seeing insured patients who don't have quick access to regular doctors, the Times reported.

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High-Fructose Corn Syrup Not Cause of Obesity Epidemic: Studies

There's no link between increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and the obesity epidemic in the United States, according to five studies published this week in a supplement to the journal Clinical Nutrition.

For a number of years, high-fructose corn syrup (a liquid sweetener widely used in food and drinks) has been regarded as a major reason for the growing number of overweight Americans. But these new studies say that's not the case, USA Today reported.

"It doesn't appear that when you consume high-fructose corn syrup, you have any different total effect on appetite than if you consume any other sugar," said Barry Hopkins, the author of one of the studies.

High-fructose corn syrup accounts for about 50 percent of the sweeteners used in the United States and about 10 percent of sweeteners used worldwide, said John White, the author of another of the studies.

"But obesity isn't just a U.S. problem," he noted, USA Today reported.

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Diesel Truckers Have Higher Lung Cancer Risk: Report

Diesel truck drivers are more likely to develop lung cancer than other workers, according to U.S. researchers who examined the records of 31,135 workers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Short-haul drivers had a greater risk than long-haul drivers. This may be because long-haul drivers often keep their windows closed while short-haul drivers keep their windows open and have greater exposure to diesel exhaust, said the researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

Fresh, newly released diesel particles have a greater potential to cause DNA mutations that lead to lung cancer, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study findings will be considered by California's Air Resources Board when it meets Friday to vote on a new regulation to reduce the public health threat posed by diesel truck exhaust, the Chronicle reported.

If the rule is adopted, California would become the first state to require a retrofit or replacement of every privately owned older, heavy-duty diesel truck on the road, the newspaper said.

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Pistol Not a Medical Device: FDA

A single-bullet pistol designed to be used as protection by seniors and the disabled will not be approved as a medical device and won't be covered by Medicare, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday.

The oval-shaped Palm Pistol fits in a person's palm and the barrel sticks out through the fingers. Instead of a trigger, the gun is fired by a thumb- activated button, the Associated Press reported.

The inventor, Matthew M. Carmel of Maplewood, N.J., said an FDA representative advised him to register his company as a medical device facility and list the Palm Pistol as a "recreational adaptor." The registration seemed to go smoothly, but was revoked Monday by the FDA.

Carmel got some bad advice from that agency person, FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey told the AP.