Category Archives: National Health News

South Dakota passes law requiring women seeking abortions to first get consultation

 The sign out front advertises free pregnancy tests, information about abortion and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. But it is not an abortion clinic — it is home to the Alpha Center, an organization in Sioux Falls, S.D., dedicated to encouraging women to bring their babies to term, according to a story in the New York Times.

A law signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Tuesday makes the state the first to require women who are seeking abortions to first attend a consultation at such “pregnancy help centers,” to learn what assistance is available “to help the mother keep and care for her child.”

The legislation, which passed easily in a state Legislature where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 3 to 1, also establishes the nation’s longest waiting period — three days — after an initial visit with an abortion provider before the procedure can be done. It makes exceptions for medical emergencies, but not for rape or incest.

Many states require counseling from doctors or other clinic staff members before an abortion to cover topics like health risks. What makes the new South Dakota law different is that the mandated counseling will come from people whose central qualification is that they are opposed to abortion.

“I think everyone agrees with the goal of reducing abortion by encouraging consideration of other alternatives,” Mr. Daugaard, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday.

The law has provoked vehement opposition from supporters of abortion rights, both locally and nationally, who describe the requirements as unconstitutional obstacles for women seeking to have an abortion. Planned Parenthood said it would challenge the law in court; it is scheduled to take effect July 1.

Peggy Gibson, a Democratic state representative who voted against the measure, said the law amounted to “government intrusion into people’s medical decisions.”

“South Dakota women should not need to submit to an in-person lecture from an unqualified, noncertified, faith-based counselor or volunteer at an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center,” Gibson said.

In statehouses around the country, Republicans have used their success in the midterm elections in November to push bills aimed at reducing abortions.

More than half the states have introduced such legislation, including bills restricting health insurance coverage for abortion, requiring women to receive an ultrasound before an abortion, and banning abortion after 20 weeks, said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks abortion legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization.

South Dakota’s is the most far-reaching of the bills to become law, Nash said. Despite an abortion rate that is among the lowest in the nation, the state has become a battleground over the issue in recent years, with the Legislature passing a number of laws aimed at curbing abortions, some of which have been overturned by the courts and by voters in two referendums.

Those laws that remain are already restrictive by national standards. The state, for example, requires a one-day waiting period and some counseling, mandating that women be told that an abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being.”

Requiring visits to pregnancy help centers, which have been growing nationwide in recent years, is a significant tactical shift by opponents of abortion.

Such centers — both secular and religiously affiliated — can provide counseling under the law as long as their main mission is to “educate, counsel and otherwise assist women to help them maintain their relationship with their unborn children.”

“There’s greater assurance that a woman considering an abortion is going to be fully informed about all the risks and about all the options,” said Roger Hunt, a Republican legislator who wrote the bill. “That’s not being done at the current time.”

The law appears likely to escalate the tensions between abortion providers and the pregnancy help centers, which often operate in close proximity and are listed alongside each other in the phone book under abortion (the Alpha Center even used to be in a space that was once a Planned Parenthood clinic). Each side regularly accuses the other of manipulating and coercing women.

Leslee Unruh, the founder of the Alpha Center and a leader of anti-abortion efforts, said that counseling sessions at her clinic would be carried out only by medical professionals and would ensure that women were not being pressured by a boyfriend, husband or parents. The center already provides counseling sessions to women who regret the decision to have an abortion.

She was dismissive of any opposition to the law, saying that women remained free to have an abortion if they chose to.

“What are they so afraid of?” Unruh asked. “That women might change their minds?”

The nearby Planned Parenthood clinic is the sole provider of nonemergency abortions in the state. It has no local doctors willing to perform them, so doctors fly in each week from Minnesota.


Obesity linked to increased cancer risk

Two out of three adult Americans are at greater risk for getting cancer — and for dying of it — than they need to be, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. Not because of smog in their air or radon in their basements. Not because of tobacco in their cigarettes or mutations in their genes.

No, the particular cancer risk shared by these 150 million or so Americans comes from having too many calories in their diet and too little exercise in their daily lives.

In other words, from being overweight.

It’s widely known that simply being overweight, let alone obese, dramatically increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. But according to a 2009 survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research, only about 50 percent of Americans know that size also matters when it comes to cancer.

The risk is not trivial. The same institute estimates that every year about 100,000 Americans get a cancer they wouldn’t have gotten if they had kept their weight in check. And researchers have estimated that about 14 percent of cancer deaths in men and 20 percent in women could be avoided by this same restraint.

Obesity can raise the risk for a number of major cancers — colon, postmenopausal breast, endometrial, kidney and esophageal — the National Cancer Institute says, and when paired with physical inactivity, it can be held liable for 25 percent to 30 percent of cases of those cancers. Obesity has also been linked to a number of other cancers, including liver, gallbladder, pancreatic and ovarian.

“Obesity is almost like the new smoking,” says Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “The effect isn’t as big for most cancers, but it’s so prevalent that it will have a huge impact.”

Indeed, the National Cancer Institute estimates that smoking accounts for 37.5 percent cancer deaths in men and 22.8 percent in women. But smoking does most of its dirty work in lung cancer victims. When lung cancer is taken out of the picture, smoking can only be blamed for 12 percent of cancer deaths in men and 6 percent in women — fewer than can be chalked up to excess pounds.

No one knows for sure exactly how weight increases cancer risk, but it’s likely that it does so in multiple ways, with the precise mechanism differing from cancer to cancer. High levels of estrogen, insulin and inflammatory compounds are among the suspects that have been implicated in research to date.

A more precise understanding of the biology behind all this may someday lead to drugs that can mitigate the damage. In the meantime, of course, there’s an excellent way to avoid the obesity risk, and that’s to never become obese at all.

“That would require major lifestyle changes for many of us, and making such changes is exceedingly hard,” said Dr. John Glaspy, an oncologist at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Sure, we could make it a death penalty offense to sell sugared drinks. But short of such extreme modes of encouragement, a widespread thinning of America is not to be expected anytime soon.”

Not only is there strong evidence that if you’re overweight, you’re more likely to die of cancer. It’s also been shown that the more overweight you are, the more deadly the trend gets, according to a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003.

Stem cells may battle a form of blindness

A therapy derived from human embryonic stem cells may help millions of Americans battle a common form of blindness.

Advanced Cell Technology Inc. said Monday that it has received a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial to test its therapeutic cells as a treatment for dry age-related macular degeneration, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.

The company plans to enroll a dozen patients in a Phase I/II trial, which would primarily test the safety of the cells and whether they are well-tolerated by patients.

Age-related macular degeneration is a disease in which the macula – in the middle of the retina in the back of the eye – is gradually destroyed.

In the dry version of AMD, objects in the center of a patient’s visual field become blurry and they have trouble recognizing faces, according to the National Eye Institute.

Though there are treatments that may stall the progression of dry AMD, there is no cure. An estimated 10 million to 15 million Americans suffer from dry AMD, and that number is expected to rise as the population ages.

Beware of investment opportunities that tug on heartstrings

An Irvine, Cal., man persuaded 40 people to invest $2.4 million in his Newport Beach-based business that claimed to sell a product combating childhood obesity, but instead of making money for them he spent all of their money on himself, according to federal prosecutors.

In an indictment unsealed last week by a federal grand jury, Charles “Chuck” Davis, 53, was charged with 10 felony counts of defrauding investors. He pleaded not guilty in court Monday and was released on a $160,000 bond, according to a story in the Daily Pilot of Newport Beach, Cal.

Between January 2007 and November 2008, Davis operated LifeRight Holdings Inc. of Newport Beach, a company he told customers would air TV infomercials of a product that fights child obesity, according to the indictment.

Instead, prosecutors allege, Davis just gathered together investors and spent the money on himself.

Davis is accused of using the investments — in sums ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 and possibly larger — and paying himself, his family and his girlfriend. He bought clothes and jewels, paid for his rent and utilities, and even paid lawyers’ fees for unrelated lawsuits using LifeRight investors’ money, authorities claim.

He promised his victims a 15 percent return after 13 months, told them that the company already had a significant number of investors and said he wouldn’t take a paycheck until the product started selling, according to the indictment.

A tentative trial date is scheduled for Feb. 22.

New health care law affecting children’s hospitals

In an unintended consequence of the new health care law, drug companies have begun notifying children’s hospitals around the country that they no longer qualify for large discounts on drugs used to treat rare medical conditions, according to a story in the New York Times.

As a result, prices are going up for these specialized “orphan drugs,” some of which are also used to treat more common conditions.

Over the last 18 years, Congress has required drug manufacturers to provide discounts to a variety of health care providers, including community health centers, AIDS clinics and hospitals that care for large numbers of low-income people.

Several years ago, Congress broadened the program to include children’s hospitals. But this year Congress, in revising the drug discount program as part of the new health care law, blocked these hospitals from continuing to receive price cuts on orphan drugs intended for treatment of diseases affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the United States.

The reason behind the change is murky, though some drug makers had opposed expansion of the drug discount program. The discounts typically range from 30 percent to 50 percent, and children’s hospitals say the change is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under the new law, hundreds of rural hospitals became eligible for discounts for the first time, but the discounts are not available on orphan drugs, which account for a surprisingly large share of their outpatient pharmacy costs. At the same time, children’s hospitals lost access to discounts on the drugs.

Man’s best friend getting testy

 Dog bites that send humans to the hospital are on the upswing, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. The number of people admitted to hospitals because of dog bites grew by 86 percent from 1993 to 2008 — 5,100 cases in 1993 and 9,500 in 2008.

An average of 866 people nationally go to a hospital emergency room daily and an average of 26 are admitted for their injuries, based on the 2008 data, said statisticians from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The analysis found that seniors and young children (especially those ages 5 to 9) are the most likely to be seriously injured by dog bites, and people in rural areas made four times as many emergency department visits for bites compared with urban dwellers.

Almost half of those hospitalized needed treatment for skin infection and 58 percent  needed a procedure, such as stitches, skin grafts or wound debridement. The average cost for a dog-bite hospitalization? An average of $18,200.

Americans own about 77.5 million dogs. Each year, approximately 4.5 million people are bitten, although most of the bites are not serious.

Energy drink banned in Michigan

Four Loko, the high-octane alcoholic beverage favored on college campuses, is again under fire, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.

Michigan announced Thursday that it is banning alcoholic caffeinated drinks like Four Loko, which is produced by Chicago-based Phusion Projects and has been singled out for criticism by health experts.

The Michigan action, passed by the state’s Liquor Control Commission on a 2-1 vote, identified 55 products for its ban. The commission’s decision followed recent reports of students in Washington and New Jersey being hospitalized after drinking Four Loko. Manufacturers will have 30 days to pull the banned products.

Phusion Projects said Four Loko contains 12 percent alcohol and a 23.5-ounce can packs about as much caffeine as a tall Starbucks coffee. Critics, including some physicians and public health professionals, say the caffeine masks the effects of the alcohol, making young consumers unaware of their level of intoxication so they continue to drink to excess.