Friday Five: Cigarettes, taxes, cancelled insurance, krokodil, pre-term births

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. This time, it's Bloomberg-heavy!  

New Yorkers have to be 21 to buy cigarettes

In what may be his last public health move before leaving office, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is set to sign a bill that will raise the purchasing age of nicotine products to 21. The bill covers cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, and cigarillos. About 90% of adult smokers become smokers before age 20, so I understand the public health rationale. However, I question whether it is ethical to make a product illegal for some adults to purchase based simply on the person’s age. The fallout from this soon-to-be law will help frame tobacco laws around the country, and I’m eager to see what happens next.

 

Mexico creates a junk food tax

Mexico has one of the highest rates of overweight and obese citizens—higher than even the United States. This week, the Mexican Congress approved a bill adding an 8% tax to all “high-calorie” foods like potato chips and sweets and a one peso/liter (about $0.08) tax to all soft drinks. The tax initiative was funded in part by Michael Bloomberg’s foundation. It is resolutely opposed by Femsa, the Mexican manufacturer and distributor of Coca-Cola, and Bimbo, which owns Sara Lee, Entenmann’s, and other processed food companies. Hopefully, when the costs inevitably are passed along to consumers, consumption of these items will fall and the population move toward a healthier weight.

 

Some health insurance plans have been cancelled due to the ACA

Before the implementation of the ACA, about 5% of Americans purchased health insurance individually. Many of these plans are now being cancelled because they do not fit the requirements all plans must meet under the new law. There’s lots of outrage, particularly at President Obama, because people feel misled. It’s pretty clear what’s happening: there’s a combination of insurance companies ended “grandfathered” plans early (which is their decision, not mandated by the ACA) and plans being cancelled because they were purchased after the “grandfathering” date and therefore are not legal. For an excellent flowchart showing how and why this is happening, Jon Lovett made an intricate one.

 

Pre-term birth rates fall again

The US pre-term birth rate fell to a 15 year low of 11.5%, or 1 in 9, in 2012. Although we still have the worst pre-term birth rate of all the industrialized nations, this is a positive development. This is the sixth year in which the rates declined, but the reasons why are not clear. Pre-term, low birth weight, and very low birth weight babies can have developmental delays, need more care, and cost more—on average, about $51,600. For more detailed information, see the March of Dimes 2013 Premature Birth Report Card.

 

Appearance of krokodil may be a false alarm in the US

(Warning: DO NOT Google image search for krokodil. Trust me.)

A month or two ago, the internet was abuzz with reports of people losing body parts to a new drug, krokodil. This homemade heroin substitute popular in rural Russia causes horrible sores that lead to severe disfigurement. A few cases popped up in a number of states earlier this year, but now the DEA suggests these were heroin use-related problems, like staph or MRSA infections at the users’ injection sites. Compounding the skepticism is the fact that in some places, a dose of heroin costs only $5 (!!!), virtually eliminating the need for even the most desperate user to knowingly inject his or herself with krokodil. Here’s to hoping that it really hasn’t shown up here, and that this interest we now have leads to getting actual krokodil users help.

Friday Five: Hajj, pinkwashing, listeria, IVF, President Taft

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week.  

Hajj ends with no significant health scares

The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, called hajj, concludes today. Public health officials worried about the spread of MERS as well as the annual concerns of fires, stampedes, and the transmission of pathogens through the ritual of head shaving. Thankfully, there have been no injuries or deaths so far (though we’ll have to keep watch for MERS and the infectious diseases associated with the head shaving). The number of pilgrims was down significantly from 3.2 million last year to just under two million this year. Hopefully, this success can be emulated in future years—keeping people safe during religious rituals should be a priority for Saudi Arabia.

 

Just say no to pinkwashing

I don’t understand how someone thinks that purchasing pink M&Ms or water bottles or scarves does any more good than donating directly to a breast cancer research charity—and in fact, it doesn’t. Luckily, Breast Cancer Action runs a campaign every October called Think Before You Pink, encouraging consumers not to purchase these products. This year they’re targeting the known carcinogens that are in various “awareness” items. They’re pushing for legislation that would require chemicals in consumer products to be tested for safety before they come to market, something that is not required now. Take a look at what they’re proposing, and even if you don’t want to sign the petition, please consider sending a couple bucks to the American Cancer Society or another reputable charity rather than buying a pink iPhone case

 

Food recall: listeria edition

There is yet another food recall this week, this time with ready to eat chicken and ham products from Garden Fresh Foods tainted with listeria (the irony of company names involved in recalls always makes me giggle). Garden Fresh had a previous recall in September involving foods sold at Target, Weis, and other outlets. If you bought chicken or ham salad from Weis, and the package has "EST. 17256" or "Est. P-17256" printed on it, throw it away! Listeria usually causes trouble in the usual vulnerable groups: elderly adults, pregnant women, small children, and people with compromised immune systems. For the list of recalled foods, see the USDA.

 

IVF has been a huge success

Preliminary research shows that there have been at least five million births as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is the process of stimulating ovulation, retrieving eggs, fertilizing those eggs in a controlled environment, and transferring the resulting embryo into the woman’s uterus. People choose to use IVF for many reasons: maternal age, fallopian tube issues, male infertility, or to allow LGBT couples to have a child biologically related to a partner. Infertility is losing its stigma in no small part due to the surge in IVF babies. Having options about when and how to start a family is crucial, and being able to talk about those options and decisions helps normalize the ideas for others.

 

Former presidents…they’re just like us!

William Howard Taft, our portliest president, seems to have used the late 1800s version of Weight Watchers to slim down. New research shows that he had a years-long correspondence with a weight loss doctor who suggested a low-fat, low-calorie diet combined with exercise, portion control, and daily weigh-ins. Taft lost weight, but complained of constant hunger—no surprise because he was limited to small portions of meat, vegetables without butter, plain salad, and cooked fruit. He was not able to stick to the diet long term, so he eventually regained the weight he lost, much like modern dieters. Permanent weight loss is incredibly difficult, and Taft shows us that even the powerful can struggle with their weight.

 

Oh, and I’d love if you’d check out the first episode of my new podcast, Action Phase!

Friday Five: Oklahoma tornado, MERS, 3D printing, polio, live-tweeting surgery

Each Friday, I use  five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week.  

Tornado in Moore, OK is the latest national disaster

On Monday, a mile wide tornado with 200+ mph winds decimated Moore, OK. Approximately 10,000 people were directly affected, 240 injured, and 24 killed, including nine children. Reports of heroism abound, as do shocking photos. Coming just months after the shooting at Sandy Hook and weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Moore tornado victims may find themselves on the losing end of American disaster fatigue. Hopefully Moore will stay in the forefront of American’s minds and not blend in with other communities rebuilding from natural and human-made tragedies.

 

MERS is on the move

After a slow march toward notoriety, MERS is becoming a real threat. This novel coronavirus dubbed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has been confirmed in 44 people across multiple countries and caused 22 deaths. In this month alone, two new outbreak clusters surfaced—one in Saudi Arabia infected 22 people and killed 10, the other in France infected two, one of whom contracted MERS from a hospital roommate. However, the exact mode of transmission, incubation period, and reservoir (meaning whether or not the virus lives someplace outside of humans) are unknown and research is stymied due to restrictions placed on the virus by Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. For a virus with a 50% mortality rate so far, this is an egregious example of the problems with commercializing organisms needed for public health research. How many others will fall ill and die because of Erasmus’s patent?

 

Child’s life is saved by 3D printed trachea splint

In a groundbreaking and heartwarming use of the new technology of 3D printing, University of Michigan researchers created and implanted a trachea splint in a young child. Kaiba Gionnfrido, who had spent nearly all of his 20-month long life in a hospital on a respirator due to his trachobrochomalacia, or the softening and subsequent collapse of the windpipe. The splint, made to fit Kaiba perfectly, will give structure to his trachea to allow it to grow and is composed of a biopolymer that will be absorbed by his body in about three years. After years of requiring daily resuscitation, the splint allowed Kaiba to come off the respirator three weeks later. We can look forward to the emerging practice of saving lives using 3D printing to create custom-made medical devices.

 

Polio in Kenya and Somalia threatens eradication effort

A four-month old girl developed symptoms of paralysis and two other children tested positive for polio in a Kenyan refugee camp. Just a few weeks ago, Somalia reported its first wild case in five years. Vaccination rates in these areas are low, and nearly 500,000 people travel to and from the Kenyan refugee camp annually, increasing risk for an epidemic. This development complicates the newly adopted six year plan for polio eradication, and mass vaccination campaigns in the area are underway in hopes of containing the virus. Maintaining vaccination in vulnerable areas, even after years pass with no new infections, is crucial to destroying polio forever.

 

Brain surgery documented on Twitter and Vine

In this week’s example of how social media is revolutionizing health care and medicine, UCLA Hospital live tweeted Vine videos of brain surgery. Brad Carter, an actor and musician, underwent awake brain surgery to implant a pacemaker to calm his essential tremors. The Vine videos show distinct improvement in Carter’s guitar playing once the pacemaker was in place. By using Twitter and Vine to document the surgery, UCLA surgeons and Carter do the public a great service—showing exactly how incredible medicine can be. The videos inspire awe while simultaneously taking some of the mystery out of surgery.

 

This week's song to celebrate the end of the week: The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love"

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b69XWDUtMew]