Health Highlights: Aug. 3, 2010

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

Breast Milk Sugars Support Beneficial Gut Bacteria In Infants

Complex sugars in breast milk support bacteria that coat the lining of an infant's intestine and protect against noxious bacteria, according to U.S. researchers.

It was long believed that these complex sugars, which constitute up to 21% of breast milk but cannot be digested by babies, had no biological significance, The New York Times reported.

But the University of California, Davis researchers found that a beneficial strain of bacterium -- a subspecies of Bifidobacterium longum -- has a special set of genes that enable it to break down the complex sugars in breast milk.

This researchers said this strain of bifido is not found in adults, The Times reported.

"We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldnt digest," said researcher Dr. Bruce German. "Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy -- mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby."

The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Gulf Oil Spill Triggers Major Stress: Survey

The massive BP oil spill has caused psychological distress for about one-third of people in coastal areas of states on the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new survey of 406 adults age 21 and older.

Based on the K6 psychological distress scale, about 30% of respondents suffer from probable serious or probable mild/moderate mental illness -- 18% in Louisiana, 14% in Florida, 12% in Mississippi and 10% in Alabama, United Press International reported.

Probable serious mental illness was detected in 32% of respondents who make less than $25,000 a year, compared with two percent of those who make more than $100,000 annually.

The percentage of Louisiana residents suffering serious mental illness due to the BP oil spill is double what it was among south Louisiana residents in July 2007, two years after the state was devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to Dr. Joseph E. Bisordi, chief medical officer of the Ochsner Health System, UPI reported.

"To see so many people mired in psychological misery and in worse shape than they were after Katrina is disheartening," he said in a news release. "This benchmark identifies the need for mental health services throughout the region."


U.S. Health Care Law Raises Constitutional Issues: Judge

The new U.S. health care reform law raises a number of complex constitutional issues, according to a federal judge who denied the Justice Department's attempt to have a Virginia lawsuit against the health care law dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson said further hearings must take place before he can weigh the merits of the case, the Associated Press reported.

"Unquestionably, this regulation radically changes the landscape of health insurance coverage in America," the judge wrote in his 32-page decision.

By requiring people to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, Congress exceeded its authority, argued Virginia's Attorney General. The state assembly has passed legislation exempting state residents from the federal coverage mandate, the AP reported.

More than a dozen states are challenging the new health law, but Virginia's is the first to go before a judge.


Health Care Reform Will Save Medicare Hundreds of Billions: White House Analysis

The new health care reform law will save Medicare about $8 billion by the end of next year and $575 billion over the remainder of the decade, according to a White House analysis to be released Monday.

Those savings will make Medicare stronger, according to the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported.

The new law "marks a turning point in the unsustainable rate of cost growth in our health care system," according to an advance copy of the analysis. The law "reforms Medicare program's payment and delivery systems to incentivize high-quality care, appropriate price services, modernize the health care sector and fight waste, fraud and abuse."

The analysis predicts that savings in Medicare costs will help reduce seniors' monthly premiums by nearly $200 a year by 2018, the AP reported.


Altered Herpes Virus May Fight Head and Neck Cancer: Study

Treatment with a genetically engineered herpes virus helped improve survival of head and neck cancer patients, say U.K. researchers.

The virus works by getting into cancer cells and killing them from the inside, and also by strengthening a patient's immune system, BBC News reported.

The virus treatment was given to 17 patients, who also received chemotherapy and radiotherapy. After their tumor was surgically removed, 93% of the patients showed no trace of cancer. More than two years later, 82% of the patients were still alive.

"Around 35 to 55% of patients given the standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment typically relapse within two years, so these results compare very favorably," said study leader Dr. Kevin Harrington, of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.


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