Staph Outbreaks Put Newborns at Risk

Federal officials are warning hospitals that newborns can be infected with a resistant strain of a staphylococcus germ circulating in many communities.

Health experts are increasingly worried about staph germs that are not killed by standard antibiotics. The resistant staph germs found in hospitals are usually different from those in the general community. But three hospital outbreaks among newborns in Chicago and Los Angeles came from staph that was circulating in the community. The outbreaks are described in a weekly bulletin published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The resistant staph caused skin infections in 22 infants altogether. These infections can cause death. In these outbreaks, all the infants recovered. But 41 percent required hospital treatment.

The CDC urges hospitals to be alert to resistant staph among newborns and to treat it aggressively. — Richard Knox

Most ER Visits Covered by Insurance

March 30, 2006 — Contrary to what many health experts have assumed, patients who use emergency rooms (ER) the most actually have health insurance, according to a study published online by the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Until now, the only studies of ER visits have been small and typically confined to just the emergency department. In this study, researchers surveyed nearly 60,000 individuals in more than 32,000 households nationwide. They asked how often — and for what reason — people went to hospital emergency departments.

They found, understandably, that the vast majority of patients were in poor physical or mental health. But surprisingly, they also found the majority — 84 percent — had health insurance. Some 81 percent reported having a "usual" source of primary care. ER-use has increased over the past decade. Researchers say nearly one in four Americans now report visiting a hospital ER within a one-year period. — Patricia Neighmond

Troubling Results from Bird Flu Vaccine

March 29, 2006 — The bird flu vaccine being stockpiled by the federal government is not very effective, even at very high doses, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The vaccine is designed to protect against the bird flu strain that emerged in Asia two years ago. The government has spent $250 million to stockpile the vaccine in case of a flu pandemic.

But when researchers gave two shots of the vaccine to healthy adults, only about half of those who got the highest dose had a good immune response. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health says that's troubling.

"The sobering news is that the dose is very high that's required," said Fauci. "We have a long way to go."

Fauci says researchers are trying to boost the body's response to the vaccine. Otherwise, the 8 million doses in the U.S. stockpile will protect only about 2 million people. — Richard Knox

Study: Mental Illness Coverage Doesn't Increase Costs

March 29, 2006 — Mandating that health insurance policies cover more mental illness and substance abuse treatments wouldn't cost much, according to a new study.

For about a decade, politicians have been trying to pass a federal law that would require insurers to pay for mental illness and substance abuse at the same level as other diseases. One of the arguments against the legislation is that such a requirement would increase the cost of medical care in the United States.

A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. shows that wouldn't happen. Federal employees have had this kind of insurance coverage since 2001. Researchers looked at costs in those health plans. Federal employees didn't increase their use of mental-health treatments any more than people without the insurance. The report also found there was no significant increase in premiums. — Joanne Silberner

Tobacco, Alcohol Tied to Early Onset Colon Cancer

March 28, 2006 — Tobacco and alcohol use can lead to an earlier onset of colon cancer, according to a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers who did the study suggest that drinkers and smokers should undergo cancer screening at an earlier age.

Researchers from Northwestern University's medical school studied 161,000 people diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer.

They found that the average age of diagnosis for nonsmokers and drinkers was 71 years. The average age for people who both drank and smoked was 63 years. People who either smoked or drank were in between.

Screening recommendations for colon cancer start at the age of 50, but people with a history of colorectal cancer in their family are advised to start screening earlier. The researchers suggest that smokers and drinkers should be considered for early screening as well. — Joanne Silberner

Bacon that's Good for You?

March 26, 2006 — A team of scientists may have found a way to make bacon that's actually good for your heart.

A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids appears to have a benefit in preventing heart disease. Oily fish typically have lots of omega 3, animals have little or none. But now scientists from Harvard, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Missouri have put a gene into pigs that converts their omega-6 fatty acids into omega-3 fatty acids. The modified pigs don't have as much omega 3 as fish, but they do have significant amounts.

The team has five omega-3 producing pigs they intend to use breeding. At first, they'll use these altered animals to study porcine heart disease, but someday they could become the source for bacon that may have at least a modest benefit for your heart. — Joe Palca

Breakthrough in Controlling Cholesterol

Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., have come up with a novel way to control cholesterol. The new technique involves something called RNA interference, which is a way of using tiny snippets of RNA to turn off genes.

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals has been trying to use this technique to turn off the gene that makes apoliprotein B, a key component in making cholesterol. Scientists gave 12 monkeys two different amount of these RNA snippets. Levels of serum cholesterol dropped in both groups, and at the higher dose, the effect lasted for 11 days. The injections did not seem to have any undesirable consequences.

There's still a lot of work before this approach can be used to control cholesterol in humans, but scientists say it's encouraging to see that it appears to work in monkeys.

The results appear in the online version of the journal Nature. — Joe Palca

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