Science

RECENT POSTS

‘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

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

Can Marijuana Help Children with Severe Epilepsy?

(David McNew/Getty Images)

(David McNew/Getty Images)

By Danielle Venton

Mark Kohr doesn’t smoke pot. But open his freezer and among the tamales and organic chicken strips, you’ll also find four pounds of cannabis. He plans to process the cannabis, worth about $900, into an oil for his daughter.

Camille, who is 13, has a severe, sometimes fatal, form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome. Like many kids with Dravet Syndrome, conventional medications didn’t seem to work. Kohr says that the cannabis her parents prepare for her does.

“Here we are with one of the most difficult medical things to treat — seizures,” Kohr says. “And we’re making the medicine at home. Isn’t that the weirdest thing on earth?” Continue reading

At-Home Test Good Alternative to Colonoscopy, Study Confirms

If you’re like most of my colleagues in the newsroom, you read that headline and thought, “GREAT! What is the alternative test?!”

Here’s the quick background: Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer killer in the U.S. A colonoscopy is an excellent screening tool. But more than one-third of people who are supposed to get it (that’s people ages 50-75) don’t.

Why? I think you can guess.

A colonoscopy is an invasive screening test that can involve missing one to two days of work, an inconvenient preparation process and then a “colonoscope is gently eased inside the colon and sends pictures to a TV screen,” the American Cancer Society says. Continue reading

What Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Tragic Death Teaches Us About Addiction

Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' in Los Angeles, California, last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for the Los Angeles premiere of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ last November. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

As I think pretty much everyone must know by now, the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died Sunday, apparently of a heroin overdose. I was stunned when I found out, then deeply saddened when I read reports that he had told “60 Minutes” in 2006 that he had given up drugs and alcohol when he was 22 — “I got panicked for my life,” he told Steve Kroft. Hoffman relapsed last year.

But my sadness turned to a kind of cold fury when I saw too many comments on social media clucking disapproval for Hoffman’s “selfishness” and “poor choices.” (I’m not linking to them here; you can find them easily enough if you want to.) One friend on Facebook noted that another friend’s thread about Hoffman was the only one he’d seen acknowledging “the tragedy of his drug addiction.”

And, indeed, addiction is a disease. Dr. David Smith has treated thousands of addicts since he founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in 1967. He talked to me about “battling an uninformed public.” Continue reading

Flu Death Count Continues to Climb

KQED News interactive producer Olivia Hubert-Allen gets her flu shot. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

KQED News interactive producer Olivia Hubert-Allen gets her flu shot. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

State health officials reported Friday that deaths from influenza have reached 147, including four children under age 18. Another 44 deaths are under investigation, but not confirmed.

The total deaths so far this flu season, which started last September, eclipses the number from all of last year — 106.

As health officials have noted all month, the H1N1 strain is circulating — that’s the same strain that led to the pandemic in 2009-2010. Younger adults are at increased risk from H1N1. The theory is that adults over 65 were exposed to H1N1 decades ago and have retained some immunity. Younger adults were (presumably) never exposed so have no natural protection.

Health officials urged all Californians over age 6 months to get a flu shot. This year’s vaccine is well-matched to the circulating strains, health officials say. They urge people who believe they have the flu to contact their doctors immediately and ask about anti-viral medications.

KQED radio’s Stephanie Martin talked to health editor Lisa Aliferis about the flu. Learn more:

For Breast Cancer Survivors, Yoga May Help Overcome Fatigue

(Go Interactive Wellness/Flickr)

(Go Interactive Wellness/Flickr)

By Allison Aubrey, NPR

Exercise helps recovery after cancer treatment, but fatigue can make working out hard. Yoga can help reduce fatigue for breast cancer survivors, a study finds. It’s one of a growing number of efforts using randomized controlled trials to see if the ancient practice offers medical benefits.

Women who took a yoga class three hours a week for three months said they experienced 40 percent less fatigue compared to a group of breast cancer survivors who did not do yoga.

“Fatigue is a major and serious problem in survivors,” even years after treatments have ended, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a  psychology professor at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said.

The participants who did yoga also had lower levels of cytokines, which are markers of inflammation, in their blood, Kiecolt-Glaser says. Cytokine levels were reduced up to 20 percent six months after starting yoga. It’s not clear how this may affect their health, she says. Continue reading