Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Health Headlines - March 4

HIV Infection Among People 50 and Older Concerns WHO

A "surprisingly high" number of people over age 50 worldwide are infected with HIV and the number of cases in older adults may be growing, says a World Health Organization study released Tuesday.

For example, between 2003 and 2006, the rate of HIV infection among Americans 50 and older increased from 20 percent to 25 percent. Between 1996 and 2006, the rate of HIV infection among people 50 or older in Brazil increased from 7.5 to 15.7 per 100,000, Agence France Presse reported.

"The frequency of infection with HIV in older people is worrying. We need to understand why and when these people are becoming infected so that public health campaigns can be better targeted to prevent such infections," said WHO scientist George Schmid.

One problem is that HIV is widely regarded as a young people's disease, the WHO said. This leads to less HIV screening among older people, which results in delayed diagnosis. In addition, older people are less likely than younger people to practice safe sex, AFP reported.


Scientists Identify Cause of Gray Hair

British and German scientists say they've identified the root cause of gray hair, a finding that may lead to new methods of treatment.

In experiments with hair and follicle cells, the researchers found that gray hair is caused by a large build-up of hydrogen peroxide due to wear and tear of hair follicles. This build-up blocks hair's natural pigment, BBC News reported.

"This discovery is a major breakthrough in the understanding of hair graying and opens up some novel ideas to combat this scenario. These are being followed up at the current time in our laboratory," said lead researcher Karin Schallreuter.

The study appears in The FASEB Journal, published by the Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology.


Doctor's Plan for Custom-Made Babies Condemned

Bioethicists and other critics are condemning an American doctor's offer to let parents pick the color of their children's eyes and hair. Dr. Jeff Steinberg says the service will be available at the New York City and Los Angeles offices of his Fertility Institutes within six months.

Doctors will examine the genetic character of embryos created in a lab and implant the ones that have the best chance of giving parents a baby with the desired traits, the New York Daily News reported.

The announcement triggered widespread criticism.

"We're crossing the line into eugenics, the theory of trying to give people enhanced characteristics -- genetic engineering to make sort of the superman or superwomen," Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, director of ethics at New York Medical College and St. Vincent's Hospital, told the Daily News.

Some say Steinberg doesn't have the ability to give parents what they want.

"He's the only one offering this because you can't yet do it. Nobody can do this right now," said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Technology.


Vaccine Said to Trigger Instant Immune Response

A method of vaccination that provides instant immunity could give people spontaneous protection against diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, toxins and even cancerous cells, according to scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California.

Current vaccines can take days or weeks before they offer protection. But the two-stage method developed by the Scripps team targets specific cells and creates a "universal" immune reaction, Agence France Presse reported.

"The antibodies in our vaccine are designed to circulate inertly until they receive instructions from tailor-made small molecules to become active against a specific target," explained team leader Carlos Barbas.

"The advantage of this method is that it opens up the possibility of having antibodies primed and ready to go in the time it takes to receive an injection or swallow a pill," he told AFP. "This would apply whether the target is a cancer cell, flu virus, or a toxin like anthrax that soldiers or even civilian populations might have to face during a bioterrorism attack."

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Chinese Doctors Urged to Quit Smoking

The large number of male Chinese doctors who smoke are being urged to quit in order to set a good example for their patients, say government officials. More than 56 percent of male doctors in China smoke, the highest rate in the world, according to state media, Agence France Presse reported.

No figures were given for the smoking rate among all doctors in China.

"Medical workers and those who make decisions regarding people's health should take the lead in quitting smoking and completely banning indoor smoking," said Health Minister Chen Zhu, reported the China Daily. "International experience has it that when doctors give up smoking, it encourages a lot of others to kick the habit."

There are about 350 million smokers in China and one million die of smoking-related diseases every year.

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