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HEALTH

CDC: Most U.S. children get vaccines, but some states do better than others

The majority of infants in the U.S. are being vaccinated against serious medical diseases, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2013 National Immunization Survey (NIS).

Although immunization coverage either increased or remained balanced in 2013, coverage for recommended childhood vaccines varied by state. States and communities with low coverage may be vulnerable to outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.

Immunization coverage remained over 90 percent for the vaccines used to prevent hepatitis B, varicella, poliovirus, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Coverage increased slightly for rotavirus and hepatitis A. The number of children who did not receive any vaccinations remained quite low, at less than one percent of all children in the U.S. in 2013.

Although coverage of immunization rates remained high in 2013, getting children to receive their recommended doses in their second year of life still posed a challenge, particularly for parents living at or below the poverty line. The vaccines recommended during the second year of life include those that fight Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and Pneumococcal disease (PCV).

Immunization coverage also varied by state, and ranged from 82 percent in Rhode Island to 57 percent in Arkansas. The most crucial coverage variation occurred in the 17 states that had under 90 percent coverage with the MMR vaccine.

The CDC encourages all children to be vaccinated as per the recommended immunization schedule.

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HEALTH

Your hotel room is not dirty: it becomes home to your bacteria within hours

When humans move from place to place, they take a lot with them that remains completely unseen by the naked eye. Each one of us carries a massive ecosystem of microbes, or “microbiome,” both inside and outside of our bodies. Our individual microbiomes set up shop in our new locations rather quickly, it turns out. At least that is what researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory are saying.

A new study published on Friday in Science Magazine reveals how people put down their own bacterial signatures in their environments. The bacteria unique to an individual and common to a family move from their bodies and personal effects to their new environments at staggering speeds, the researchers discovered. They observed this repopulation whenever families moved from one home to another and into hotel rooms.

“Everyone thinks hotels are icky,” said Jack Gilbert, corresponding author of the study and environmental microbiologist at Argonne, “but when one young couple we studied moved into a hotel, it was microbiologically identical to their home within 24 hours.”

“No matter what you do to clean a hotel room, your microbial signal has wiped out basically every trace of the previous resident within hours,” said Gilbert.

The study looked at how bacteria serve as indicators of how family members move around in their homes and make contact with one another. The findings have obvious potential use in forensics.

“We could go all J. Edgar Hoover on this and make a database of microbial fingerprints of people all over the world,” Gilbert said, “and it’s far more sophisticated than a standard fingerprint, which is just a presence or absence indication. We can see who they are, where they’re from, the diet they’re eating, when they left, who they may have been interacting with. It gets pretty crazy.”

Gilbert also said the findings have potential implications for how parents bring up their children. He advised that parents get their kids outside the home because exposure to bacteria in the environment is good for them. Gilbert also advised parents to get a dog.

“We saw dogs acting as a super-charged conduit,” he said, “transferring bacteria between one human and another, and bringing in outdoor bacteria. They just run around distributing microbes all willy-nilly.”

Hear a full description of the research in Gilbert’s own words via this week’s Science podcast.

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HEALTH

Screening for newborn jaundice: There’s an app for that!

Home health screening comes one step closer as scientists reveal a new smartphone app that allows parents of newborn babies to screen their little ones for jaundice, a common condition that can go unnoticed.

University of Washington researchers announced Wednesday that they have tested the app, aptly called “Bilicam,” and found that it works just as well as, if not better than, the current screening approach, but parents can do the screening from home. If they get a positive result, the researchers say the parents can then follow up with a visit to the pediatrician. Otherwise, the app may save them the trip and unnecessary testing.

“Virtually every baby gets jaundiced, and we’re sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak,” said James Taylor, professor of pediatrics and medical director of the newborn nursery at the University of Washington Medical Center. “This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parent or health care provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital.”

The development team will present their project and results from human subject tests at the International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing which will occur in Seattle next month.

Jaundice presents as yellowing of the skin caused by an accumulation of a chemical called bilirubin. Bilirubin is a natural breakdown product of heme, the iron-containing chemical that carries oxygen molecules in red blood cells. As red blood cells undergo normal death, heme is recycled in the liver.

In many newborns whose livers do not keep up with the heme recycling demands, bilirubin can build up and cause jaundice. Left untreated, jaundice can cause brain damage and a potentially deadly condition known as kernicterus.

The app works by detecting yellow discoloration in the neonate’s skin. To accommodate all lighting conditions, camera differences, and skin tones, the user places a standardized calibration card on the infant’s belly that is captured in the photograph.

“This is a way to provide peace of mind for the parents of newborns,” says Shwetak Patel, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and of electrical engineering. “The advantage of doing the analysis in the cloud is that our algorithms can be improved over time.”

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HEALTH

Junk food reduces appetite for balanced diet, new study shows

Rats whose diet consists primarily of junk food become fat and lose their appetite for a balanced diet, a new study shows. The fast food diet decreases the desire among rats to eat a balanced diet, according to the study, which was published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study helps to explain the result of consuming excessive amounts of junk food, which may alter behavior, weaken an individual’s self-control, and promote overeating and obesity.

The team of researchers, which was led by Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology from the School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Australia, taught young male rates to associate cherry and grape-flavored sugar water with two different sound cues.

Healthy rats that consumed a healthy diet stopped responding to the sound cues that were linked to a flavor which they had recently overindulged in. This instinctive mechanism, which is widespread among animals, offers protection against overeating while promoting a healthy and balanced diet.

After two weeks following a diet that included cafeteria food such as pie, cake, dumplings, and cookies, the rats experienced a 10 percent weight increase along with a drastic change in behavior, including indifference in food choices.

Morris said in a statement, “The interesting thing about this finding is that if the same thing happens in humans, eating junk food may change our responses to signals associated with food rewards.” She continued, “It’s like you’ve just had ice cream for lunch, yet you still go and eat more when you hear the ice cream van come by.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one third, or 78.6 million, of adults in the U.S. are obese.

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HEALTH

Researchers turn bad mouse memories into good ones

The majority of memories are linked with some form of emotion, much like the recalling of the death of a loved one evokes feelings of sadness, while thinking about times spent with a friend may evoke feelings of happiness.

Neuroscientists from MIT have discovered the brain circuit that controls the link between memories and specific emotions, both positive and negative. In addition, the researchers have also discovered how to manipulate brain cells in order to reverse such emotional associations with certain memories through a technique called “optogenetics,” which uses light to control neuronal activity.

Senior study author Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, and colleagues found a neuronal circuit connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala of the brain, which plays a key role in associating certain emotions with memory. This circuit may help scientists develop drugs to treat mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Previous studies have found that many factors about memory are malleable, which is what psychotherapists have taken advantage of when helping patients suffering from PTSD or depression. For this study, the researchers sought to explore this malleability with an experimental technique that permits them to find neurons encoded with a certain memory, or engram, in lab rats. The researchers then “incepted” false memories by reactivating engrams while the rats were going through a different experience.

“In the future, one may be able to develop methods that help people to remember positive memories more strongly than negative ones,” said Tonegawa in a statement.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Nature.

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HEALTH

Tomato-rich diet could reduce risk of prostate cancer

Men who consume at least 10 portions of tomatoes per week have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer, according to a new study.

It is estimated that 233, 000 new cases and 29,480 deaths from prostate cancer will occur by the end of 2014 in the United States. It is the second most common cancer for men in the world.

Researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford analyzed the diets of 1,806 men between the ages of 50 and 69 years with prostate cancer, and compared them with the diets of 12,005 men who were cancer-free.

Led study researcher Vanessa Er, from the School of Social and Community Medicine at the University of Bristol and Bristol Nutrition BRU, and colleagues developed what is known as the “dietary index,” which features dietary components that are associated with prostate cancer. In particular, men who consume a diet rise in selenium, calcium and lycopene had a lower risk of developing prostate cancer.

Tomatoes in particular were found to be most beneficial, lowering the risk of prostate cancer in men by 18 percent when consuming more than 10 portions weekly.

“Our findings suggest that tomatoes may be important in prostate cancer prevention. However, further studies need to be conducted to confirm our findings, especially through human trials. Men should still eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and stay active,” said Er in a statement.

The findings of the study are published in the medical journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

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HEALTH

Scientists grow complete new organ, take major step in regeneration

In a major forward leap in regenerative medicine research, a group of British scientists report that they have successfully grown a complete, functional organ from harvested mouse cells. Even better, the new organ functioned normally after it was transplanted into a recipient mouse.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh produced the world’s first working thymus, not from stem cells but from connective tissue cells called fibroblasts. Although the work was done entirely in mice, the success is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement in regenerative medicine, which endeavors to one day be able to replace diseased or injured organs with fresh ones grown in the lab.

Up to now, only small portions of functional organs have been successfully grown in the lab. Bits of hearts, livers, and even brains have been grown from stem cells, but no complete, functional organs have been produced this way. In the new study, the investigators created the new thymus from fibroblast cells, not stem cells.

The thymus gland is a kind of command center for the body’s immune system. Two kinds of immune cells stop by the thymus to be armed and equipped to fight off foreign invaders once they move back into the circulating blood. These so –called T-cells, particularly CD4 or “helper” T-cells and CD8 or “killer” T-cells orchestrate and carry out attacks on infected or abnormal cells, respectively.

The Edinburgh scientists coaxed mouse fibroblast cells to overproduce a transcription factor, or gene “switch” called FOXN1, which guides the formation of the thymus during normal embryonic development. The fibroblasts with enhanced FOXN1 levels transformed into induced thymic epithelial cells that when combined with other supportive thymus cells and grafted onto the kidneys of mice, grew into well-formed, structurally intact organs.

“This research is an exciting early step towards that goal, and a convincing demonstration of the potential power of direct reprogramming technology, by which once cell type is converted to another,” said Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the Medical Research Council, the source of funding for the study. “However, much more work will be needed before this process can be reproduced in the lab environment, and in a safe and tightly controlled way suitable for use in humans.”

The breakthrough accomplishment was published earlier this week in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

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HEALTH

The skinny on teen eating disorders: normal weight does not mean ‘all clear’

Not rail-thin? A teen may still be stuck in a serious eating disorder. Researchers report that dangerous eating behaviors may be present in teens that show no indication of a problem through their body weights. In fact, they found an almost 6-fold rise in teen patients who were at normal weights but exhibited every other indicator for anorexia.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia can cause loss of body weight to the point that the patient appears abnormally thin. However, being underweight is not a necessary criterion for diagnosing these diseases.

“Emaciated bodies are the typical image portrayed in the media of patients with restricting eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa,” said lead author Melissa Whitelaw, a clinical specialist dietitian at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. “This paper highlights that it is not so much about the weight but the weight loss that can lead to a serious eating disorder. The complications of malnutrition can occur at any weight.”

The report was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. In the study, 99 teens aged 12 to 19 were assessed for “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS-Wt, which includes the presence of anorexia symptoms and absence of underweight. Only eight percent had EDNOS-Wt in 2005 compared with 47 percent in 2009.

“I was surprised to see how much it increased,” Whitelaw said. “I was also surprised at how similar they were not only physically but also psychologically. Everything about them was anorexia except that they don’t look really skinny.”

Experts caution that by looking only at body weight, serious eating disorders in teens may be overlooked.

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HEALTH

Task force suggests behavioral counseling for overweight Americans with heart risks

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults at higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease participate in behavioral counseling in order to prevent the onset of the heart attack or stroke.

The USPSTF suggests that adults who are obese and have at least one other risk factor for developing heart disease – such as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol – engage in behavioral counseling interventions in order to improve their overall level of health through diet and exercise.

In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that approximately 600,000 people die of cardiovascular disease every year. Simple lifestyle changes can help to curb these numbers.

Task Force member Sue Curry, Ph.D., suggests that those who have at least one risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease can benefit greatly from the advice and recommendations provided by professionals such as dieticians, nutritionists, psychologists, physiotherapists, health educators, or exercise professionals.

“By following the recommended interventions, patients can experience health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, thus decreasing their risk for heart disease and stroke. The most effective interventions vary, but typically involve a trained counselor who provides education, helps patients set goals, shares tools to help promote healthy behaviors, and regularly monitors and follows up with patients,” said Curry in a statement.

The final recommendations from the Task Force are published online at www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org, as well as in Annals of Internal Medicine.

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HEALTH

Edible marijuana products must meet safety requirements, Colorado says

Mommy always said, “Don’t eat too many cookies.” This directive takes on new meaning in Colorado now that the state is seeing a growing market for marijuana and THC-infused edibles following the legalization of the drug earlier this year. Bakers and other food companies that sell products containing marijuana or its active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, must adhere to state guidelines established to ensure safety and prevent misuse. Colorado’s proactive effort has earned it praise from the Brookings Institution and other public policy analysts while many other states watch with curiosity.

The legalization of marijuana, especially for recreational use, has not been without setbacks. Recent problems with potency, particularly in cases of high potency, have made headlines. Some less well-informed customers have over-consumed THC-containing products. An overdose of THC can manifest as paranoia, sweating, and even death, as was the case for a Wyoming college student who was recently in Denver for purchasing the products.

“There’s been anecdotal evidence that some of the new consumers in the legalized market were not very well informed in terms of how to safely take that product,” said Lewis Koski, director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division.

Labeling of the newly allowed products has always contained sufficient safety information as part of major efforts by the state to inform their consumers about the proper usages and risks. Even so, policy makers issued a large set of rules on August 1 calling for warning labels and detailing the parameters for serving size, which is 100mg of THC per product.

Some question, however, whether the labeling additions will better-inform consumers.

“If you continue to put other warnings on there you have to really question whether or not that becomes effective as a means to really educate a consumer,” Koski said.

To date, the marijuana dispensaries have taken the bulk of the responsibility to educate consumers on how to safely consume their products. According to Brendon Greney, an employee or “budtender” of Organic Alternatives in Fort Collins, Colo., most people do not get around to reading the labels. Greney sees himself as not only a vendor but an educator as well.

“This is fun. It should be fun,” said Greney. “And I think it’s safe if consumed and used the right way and this gives us an opportunity to share that information with people. It’s not some scary back alley thing.”