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Just One Dose of Many Common Medicines Can Kill a Child

Many over-the-counter products contain acetaminophen. One dose is usually not a problem, but it's easy to lose track of how much your child is taking. An overdose can cause liver failure or death. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Many over-the-counter products contain acetaminophen. One dose is usually not a problem, but it’s easy to lose track of how much your child is taking. An overdose can cause liver failure or death. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

By Scott Hensley, NPR

Concerns about drug risks have led 28 state attorneys general to ask the Food and Drug Administration to reverse its approval of Zohydro, a long-acting narcotic painkiller, before the medicine is even put on the market.

People often underestimate the risks of individual drugs and combinations of drugs for young children.

The risks for addiction and overdose from the potent opioid outweigh the benefits of pain relief, critics say. Some point to the risk for children, in particular. A single capsule of Zohydro could kill a kid, the medicine’s instructions warn.

Other opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and Percocet, are already fixtures in America’s medicine cabinets. And as the prescriptions for drugs like these have surged, so have the reports of overdoses and deaths — for children and adults.

But opioids are just one kind of risky medicine. Doctors have a disturbingly long list of drugs that can lead to the death of a child after just one or two doses. Continue reading

New Food Labels to Focus on Calories, Sugar

Many processed foods, including bottled tomato sauce, have added sugars, which would be required under the proposed label. (Danny Nicholson/Flickr)

Many processed foods, including bottled tomato sauce, have added sugars, which would be required under the proposed label. (Danny Nicholson/Flickr)

By Allison Aubrey, NPR

Ready for a reality check about how many calories you’re eating or drinking?

The proposed new nutrition facts panel may help.

“I’ve been hoping for years that the FDA would list added sugars,” — Marion Nestle, NYU Nutrition Professor 

The Obama administration Thursday released its proposed tweaks to the iconic black and white panel that we’re all accustomed to seeing on food packages.

The most visible change is that calorie counts are bigger and bolder — to give them greater emphasis.

In addition, serving sizes start to reflect the way most of us really eat. Take, for example, ice cream. The current serving size is a half-cup. But who eats that little?

Under the proposed new label, the serving size would become 1 cup. So, when you scoop a bowl of mint chocolate chip, the calorie count that you see on the label will probably be much closer to what you’re actually eating.

Continue reading

Death Cafe: Talking About Death — While Eating Cake

A recent Death Cafe, held at San Francisco's Zen Hospice Project. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

A recent Death Cafe, held at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

By Jeremy Raff

In a dimly lit room decorated with several Buddhas and a large red-and-white Zen illustration, twenty-nine people sat in a circle. Some were eating chocolate bundt cake. It was an unusual setting to be discussing the topic at hand: death and dying. These death cafes have sprung up around the world to address the taboo subject head-on. Organizers hope that increased awareness of death will help people make the most of their lives.

Roy Remer, the group’s facilitator, hushed the room and passed around pieces of cardstock covered in Post-its. Each person wrote intimate words on them — family members’ names, roles they play (mother, mentor), significant relationships and important objects. The Post-its became a boiled-down map of what each person holds dearest. Then, Remer walked the circle, visiting each person with inevitable gravity. He then ripped away Post-its from each one.

Some reflexively clutched their children’s names. But most averted their eyes, looking stunned. It wasn’t easy for Remer either. “It felt violent,” he said. The exercise simulated loss and started the conversation about death and dying. Continue reading

‘Insufficient Evidence’ That Vitamins Prevent Heart Disease, Cancer

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Brittany Patterson

Toss those vitamin bottles and instead opt for a well-balanced diet if you’re looking to prevent heart disease or cancer.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released new recommendations Monday regarding both multivitamins and certain supplements — and their potential to help prevent heart disease and cancer. The task force “concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms” of the use of multivitamins, vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements to prevent heart disease or cancer.

The task force is, however, recommending against use of beta-carotene and vitamin E supplements. Continue reading

15 Measles Cases Confirmed Statewide; State Officials Urge Vaccination

 prepare an injection of the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination. Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Preparing an injection of the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. (Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images)

First the flu, then whooping cough and now measles. State health officials announced Friday morning that the state has 15 confirmed cases, compared with just two at this time last year.

Of the 15 cases, three are in people who traveled to the Philippines, where a large outbreak is occurring, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Two more cases are in recently returned travelers from India, where measles is endemic. Nearly half of the cases — seven — are in people who were “intentionally not vaccinated,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist with the CDPH.

Measles is one of the most contagious viral illnesses. 

“Today I am asking unvaccinated Californians who are traveling outside the Americas to get vaccinated before you go,” Chavez said.

The measles vaccine is highly effective. It is administered in two doses, as part of the measles-mumps-rubella shot, or MMR. The first dose is given to toddlers at 12-15 months, and the second is recommended before children start kindergarten. CDC guidelines also clearly state that infants who are being taken for travel internationally can receive the first dose as young as 6 months. Two doses provide about 98 percent protection against measles, said Kathleen Harriman, with the CDPH. If you have had the measles, you are also protected. Continue reading

HPV Vaccine Prevents Cancer, Yet Parents Slow To Make Sure Kids Get It

Studies show the HPV vaccine is highly protective, but as many as two-thirds of 11 and 12-year-old girls don't get it. (Art Writ/Flickr)

Studies show the HPV vaccine is highly protective, but as many as two-thirds of 11 and 12-year-old girls don’t get it. (Art Writ/Flickr)

By Patti Neighmond, NPR

You would think that a vaccine that could prevent cancer would be an easy sell, but that’s hasn’t proven to be true so far with the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer.

“This is a vaccine that protects against cancer; what could be better than that?”   

Just 33 percent of girls and less than 7 percent of boys in the U.S. have gotten all three recommended doses of the vaccine to protect against the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical and other cancers. Compare that to the tiny African nation of Rwanda, where more than 90 percent of sixth-grade girls were vaccinated in 2011, or Australia, where 73 percent of 12- and 13-year-old girls have gotten all three vaccines.

“This is a vaccine that protects against cancer; what could be better than that?” asks Shannon Stokley, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She and other public health officials are trying to figure out the best ways to persuade American teenagers and preteens to get the HPV vaccine. Continue reading

Whooping Cough Vaccine: Does Its Effectiveness Wear Off Faster?

A vial containing the acellular pertussis vaccine. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

A vial containing the acellular pertussis vaccine. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

A new rise in whooping cough cases in California is raising questions among doctors about whether there are problems with the current vaccine. California public health data show a spike in whooping cough cases in 2013 compared to the year before, and last week officials confirmed the first death from the disease since the major outbreak of 2010: an infant in Riverside.

“The attempt at making vaccines safer has created a potential lapse in protection.” 

Whooping cough, or pertussis as it is referred to in medical circles, is cyclical in nature and tends to peak every three to five years. But doctors are now finding evidence that the new vaccine may start to wear off on a similar timeline, despite medical recommendations that allow for a span of eight years between booster shots.

“The efficacy of the new vaccine is really good, it works. It’s just that it wanes, and it wanes more quickly,” said Dr. Michael Witte, a pediatrician in Pt. Reyes, north of San Francisco.

The new acellular whooping cough vaccine was introduced in the 1990s. It has fewer side effects than the earlier whole-cell vaccine that had been in use since the 1940s. By 2001, the old vaccine was completely phased out. So while many adolescent kids have received boosters of the new vaccine, they would have gotten shots when they were babies that included the old vaccine. Continue reading

Yes, Birth Control Can Raise Risk of Blood Clots; So Does Pregnancy

The NuvaRing birth control product is a flexible ring which releases hormones. A woman replaces it herself once a month. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The NuvaRing birth control product is a flexible ring which releases hormones. A woman replaces it herself once a month. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Merck, the drug company that makes the NuvaRing birth control product, announced last week it will pay $100 million to settle thousands of claims from women who believe they were harmed by using the product.

As NPR reported Monday, NuvaRing is the most recent hormone-based kind of birth control to “become the focus of scrutiny.” All hormone-based contraceptives, including the pill, put a woman at increased risk of blood clots, stroke and heart attack. Women need to weigh the risks of pregnancy with the risks of hormonal contraception, experts advise. But the key thing to remember is that the risks remain rare.

Dr. Michael Policar is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at U.C. San Francisco. ”If you take a rare event, make it a little more common, it is still a rare event,” he told NPR — but still believes that studies are needed that compare NuvaRing head-to-head with other forms of contraception. Continue reading

5 Things You Should Know About This Year’s Flu

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

Update February 21, 2014: The California Department of Public Health says 278 people have died of flu so far this year, and an additional 29 deaths are under investigation. While cases have been declining for a few weeks, state health officials still recommend people get vaccinated, if they haven’t already.

State health officials have released the latest numbers on flu deaths — 202 people have died so far this year and that’s up from 147 last week. That’s the bad news, but for the first time since early January, health officials are also saying that cases appear to be declining. At least for now. Flu season generally runs three months and is “notoriously unpredictable,” said Dr. James Watt, with the California Department of Public Heatlh and recommended that everyone got vaccinated.

Here at State of Health, we’ve noticed that a lot of the same questions come up again and again. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some answers.

1. Is the flu shot really the best way I can avoid getting the flu? In a word, yes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.” And you need to get it annually. While everyone over age 6 months should have it, CDC says, it’s especially important for people in high risk groups including:

  • People with certain underlying medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease and obesity
  • Children under age 5 and adults over age 65
  • Pregnant women — yes, pregnant women, the vaccine is safe and effective for you, CDC says. Continue reading

Sugar Is A Risk for Heart Disease, Too

A 12-ounce can of Coke has 9 teaspoons of sugar. (Kansir/Flickr)

A 12-ounce can of Coke has 9 teaspoons of sugar. (Kansir/Flickr)

By Allison Aubrey, NPR

We’ve written lots lately about the potentially addictive qualities of sugar and the public policy efforts to limit consumption.

Now comes a new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which finds that Americans who consumed the most sugar — about a quarter of their daily calories — were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limited their sugar intake to 7 percent of their total calories.

To translate that into a 2,000-calorie a day diet, the big sugar eaters were consuming 500 calories a day from sugar — that’s 31 teaspoons. Those who tamed their sweet tooth, by contrast, were taking in about 160 calories a day from sugar — or about 10 teaspoons per day.

Unfortunately, most Americans have a sugar habit that is pushing toward the danger zone. Continue reading