Health Highlights: April 6, 2009

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

China Announces Major Health System Reforms

By 2020, all Chinese citizens will be provided with universal health care, the government announced Monday.

Officials said reforms to the current system -- criticized as costly and inadequate -- will provide "safe, effective, convenient and affordable" health services for all 1.3 billion citizens, the Associated Press reported.

Under the new plan, hospitals and clinics in poor rural areas and in less developed cities would be improved, and the price of essential medicines would be capped, said the official Xinhua news agency. In addition, there will be "diversified medical insurance systems" to cover employees in the private sector, unemployed people in cities and those who live in the poor countryside.

Greater attention will also be given to disease prevention and control, maternal health, mental health and first-aid services. There were no details about the cost of the reforms, the AP reported.

Currently, only 30% of the population in China is covered, according to the AP. A serious medical condition can deplete a family's life savings, and setting aside money to pay medical fees can significantly reduce domestic spending.

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Simultaneous Partial-Face, Double-Hand Transplant a First: Report

The world's first simultaneous partial-face and double-hand transplant was performed in France over the weekend.

Dozens of doctors worked in teams for 30 hours on a 30-year-old male patient whose burn scars from a 2004 accident prevented him from having any social life, Paris' Public Hospital System said Monday, the Associated Press reported.

The operation was the world's sixth partial-face transplant but the first to include hands as well. It was performed at the Henri Mondor Hospital in the Paris suburb of Creteil. The transplanted organs came from a brain-dead patient.

The first part of the operation involved transplantation of the upper half of the face, including the scalp, forehead, nose, ears and upper and lower eyelids, the AP reported. A new set of hands were then attached above the wrist. All relevant arteries, veins, nerves and tendons were successfully reconnected by the surgeons, the hospital authority said.

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U.S. Road Deaths Lowest Since 1960s, Agency Says

Experts say that more expensive gas and a troubled economy are among the reasons why the number of people killed on U.S. highways in 2008 declined to the lowest level since the early 1960s, the Associated Press reported.

Last year, 37,313 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to preliminary figures released Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's 9.1% lower than in 2007 (41,059 deaths), and the lowest death toll since the 36,285 fatalities in 1961.

The number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.28 in 2008, the lowest on record. That figure was 1.36 in 2007, the AP reported.

Vehicle miles traveled in 2008 decreased by about 3.6%, to 2.92 trillion miles, the NHTSA said.

"The silver lining in a bad economy is that people drive less, and so the number of deaths go down. Not only do they drive less, but the kinds of driving they do tend to be less risky -- there's less discretionary driving," Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the AP.

Record-high seat-belt use, stricter enforcement of impaired driving laws and efforts to encourage safer driving habits are among the other reasons for the decline in traffic deaths, according to experts.

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Scientists Discover Why Scratching Relieves Itchiness

Scratching help relieves itchiness by blocking activity in certain spinal cord nerve cells that transmit sensation to the brain, say University of Minnesota researchers.

The findings from their work in primates could help in efforts to develop the first effective ways to relieve chronic itch, said study author Dr. Glenn Giesler. But he added that more research is needed to learn about the chemistry involved in process, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

This is a "potentially significant" discovery, said itching expert Gil Yosipovitch, a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, BBC News reported.

"Although there is a long way to go, methods that can induce a pleasurable scratch sensation without damaging the skin, via mechanical stimuli or drugs that can inhibit these neurons, could be developed to treat chronic itch," Yosipovitch said.

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