Health Highlights: Dec. 10, 2008

Dec. 11 -- Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Zimbabwe Cholera Epidemic Continues to Spread

The cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe is spreading rapidly, with a reported 15,572 cases and 746 deaths, the United Nations said Wednesday.

A deteriorating health care system and water infrastructure are the reasons why the water-borne disease is rampaging through the impoverished African nation, which last week declared a health emergency, the Associated Press reported.

Aid agencies say coming rains could further spread the disease in a population already weakened by disease and hunger.

There are also concerns that cholera could be carried into neighboring countries. A large number of Zimbabweans with cholera have sought help in South Africa, which has reported 500 cases of the disease, including nine deaths, the AP reported.

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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.