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Health Headlines - May 7

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:23pm

Internet Unborn Baby Gender Test Draws Fire

A test being sold on the Internet allowing future parents to know the gender of their unborn child has come in for criticism.

BBC News reports the procedure uses the pregnant woman's blood obtained from a pin prick and detects whether it has a "Y" chromosome. This would mean the baby would be a boy.

The company marketing the test, DNA Worldwide, claims it is 99 percent accurate and offers a refund if the prediction turns out to be wrong, BBC News reports. The test can be done after six weeks of pregnancy.

It is not new science, the BBC says, but many organizations are concerned that commercial marketing of it could lead to abuse. A number of British anti-abortion groups are opposing the test, fearing that if prospective parents find out that the sex of their unborn baby is not the one they want, they would seek an abortion.

And at least one UK medical group opposes the test. A spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists told the BBC that gender selection under these circumstances is inappropriate. "Focus should remain firmly on the health and care of the mother and developing baby, rather than gender," the BBC quotes a spokesman as saying.

David Nicholson, the director of DNA Worldwide, rejected these concerns, telling BBC News that surveys of those who have used the service in the past year didn't indicate that an increase in abortions was occurring.

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Autistic Children Miss Visual Cues in Facial Expressions, Study Finds

Children with autism can't "read" the subtleties of expression in a person's face, a new UCLA study has concluded.

The study, being presented over the weekend at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Seattle, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), on two groups of children -- 16 high-functioning individuals with autism and 16 typically developing children. According to a UCLA news release, both groups were shown images of faces with different expressions: anger, fear, happiness, and neutrality.

After monitoring the children's brain activity through the fMRI, the scientists found that the autistic children registered virtually no activity in the part of the brain that recognizes differences in people's expressions.

"They don't pick up what's going on -- they miss the nuances, the body language and facial expressions and sometimes miss the big picture and instead focus on minor, less socially relevant details," said Mari Davies, a UCLA graduate student in psychology who was a co-leader in the research. "That, in turn, affects interpersonal bonds."

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20 Million Chickens Kept Off U.S Market Pending Inspection of Feed

About 20 million chickens won't be heading to market next week after federal officials placed them on hold Friday because their feed contained an industrial chemical.

According to the Associated Press, the chickens may still go to market, but a weekend risk assessment needed to be made first. This includes: the absence of melamine (the chemical in question) in feed used by the larger chicken producers; whether the pet food has been diluted with larger amounts of other ingredients in the feed; how healthy the chickens are that ate the feed; no evidence that the trace amounts of melamine would harm humans.

The wire service says officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are overseeing the risk assessment in wake of millions of units of pet food being recalled during the past two months because of the presence of melamine.

Melamine, which was introduced in a gluten additive from China, is believed to have been the agent that caused the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats, primarily from liver failure.

The names of the producers whose chickens were in question weren't announced Friday, but the A.P. said that the 20 million fowl in question was a small fraction of the 9 billion chickens consumed in the United States every year. Nevertheless, USDA spokesperson Keith Wlliams is quoted by the wire service as saying, "Absent the risk assessment in this particular situation, USDA will not put the seal of inspection on this meat."

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FDA Issues Guidelines to Test for Antifreeze Substance Sometimes Found in Cough Syrup

The lethal combination of a sweetener used in many cough medicines with an antifreeze chemical has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue what it calls a "guidance" to medical professionals, drug companies, suppliers and drug repackers.

While emphasizing that the agency has received no new reports of deaths because glycerin and diethylene glycol (DEG) were found in medicications such as cough syrup, the FDA Friday issued guidelines for testing to see if these two substances are combined in any pharmaceutical products. DEG, a solvent, has been associated with many accidental deaths.

Last September, more than 40 people in Panama died because of DEG-contimated glycerin in cough syrup, the FDA says, and a similar incident occurred in Haiti in late 1995-1996, when 80 children died because of the same lethal combination in cough syrup.

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Feeling Useful Boosts Older Adults' Physical Ability

Feeling useful appears to improve older adults' physical functioning, according to a U.S. study to be presented Friday at the annual scientific meeting of the American Geriatrics Society.

Researchers analyzed data on more than 900 people, ages 70 to 79. They found that feeling useful led to improvements in "performance-based" physical functioning, which includes coordination, balance, gait, and upper and lower limb strength.

The participants underwent physical performance tests and were asked about their feelings of usefulness at the start of the study and again three years later. The study was conducted by researchers at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri and the University of California, Los Angeles Medical School.

"Compared to older adults who frequently felt useful to others (at the start of the study), those who never or rarely did had greater declines in physical performance ability," the study authors wrote. "However, increases in feelings of usefulness were also associated with an improvement in physical performance."

Previous research found that older adults with low feelings of usefulness are more likely to suffer declines in physical ability and to die over a seven-year-period.

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High-Dose Radiotherapy Benefits Prostate Cancer Patients

Compared with standard-dose radiotherapy, high-dose radiotherapy lowers the risk of cancer recurrence and reduces the need for additional hormone treatment in prostate cancer patients, says a U.K. study published online in The Lancet medical journal.

"However, the higher radiation dose did slightly increase bowel side effects," chief investigator David Dearnaley of the Institute of Cancer Research and Royal Marsden Hospitals in Sutton, said in a prepared statement.

The study included 843 prostate cancer patients who received either a standard dose of radiotherapy (64 Gy) or a higher dose (74 Gy).

Dearnaley said "the dose increase was made possible by using a new more precise radiation treatment method called conformal radiotherapy."

He noted that the "trial is important in emphasizing the advantage of higher dose radiotherapy but also the need to continue to improve radiation techniques."

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