Old lung test gets new look

July 09, 1991

Asking patients to blow out a match used to be a doc's best measure of lung health. Not surprisingly, this crude test has given way to more sophisticated devices. But some doctors think the old match test deserves to be reinstated. For starters, say doctors at the University of Washington, the current tests are expensive. They're also unavailable in many remote areas and Third World countries. To support their case, the doctors have shown how easy the old test is to refine. They placed a candle at different distances along a board, and then asked 88 people -- 52 of whom had a chronic lung disease -- to try to blow the candle out. The results were just as reliable and consistent as with the more sophisticated tests. For example, most of the people diagnosed with lung disease by more sophisticated tests couldn't blow out a candle at 16 inches. It's good to see some doctors finally looking at tests from the practical vantage point of cost, availability and true value.

Infertility treatment for men:

This treatment sounds more painful than it is. Doctors at the University of Minnesota are using hot dye to treat a leading cause of male infertility -- varicose veins in the testicles. The non-toxic dye, which can be heated hotter than boiling water, scalds the inside of the vein and seals it shut. The doctors used the dye on 180 infertile men; afterward 75 percent had higher sperm counts and half were able to impregnate their wives. According to the doctors, the injections aren't painful, cost about $700 less than surgery to remove the veins, and result in fewer complications. Sixteen men had temporary numbness in their thighs and only two had any scrotal swelling. The doctors didn't have a control group, so it's hard to know how good this technique really is. Still, anything that avoids surgery is worth investigating further.

News for nursing mothers:

Nursing mothers who can't produce enough milk are often told to drink more fluids. It seems to make sense, but it's wrong. Researchers at the University of Iowa asked 15 breast-feeding women to increase the amount of water they drank by 25 percent. The extra water made some of the women feel bloated but did nothing to boost anyone's milk production.

Inherited homosexuality?:

The evidence that it can is mounting. For instance, if one identical twin is gay, the other is likely to be too. And at McMaster University in Ontario, researchers have found that homosexuals are more likely to be left-handed than the average person. (Hand preference is considered an inherited trait.) Only 35 percent of all people favor their left hand. But among homosexuals, almost half of the men and more than two-thirds of the women do. Of course, this does nothing to prove that homosexuality is inherited. Instead it more truly reflects the intense interest among psychologists in finding out more about the origins of homosexuality.

New cancer risk:

Cancer of the vulva, a woman's external genitals, is fairly common among older women. But, like cervical cancer, it's starting to hit younger women. In both cases the human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts, may be to blame. The average age of women with the precancerous form of this disease has dropped from 50 to 30, according to Michael Campion, a gynecologist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta. At greatest risk are women with a history of genital warts. That's why Campion recommends that those women learn how to examine their own vulva each month with a hand mirror. Besides warts, other warning signs include lesions, prolonged itching and any change in the color or thickness of the vulvar skin. If caught early enough, cancer of the vulva can be cleared up with lasers.

Skyrocketing costs:

A rare consensus is emerging about the skyrocketing sums Americans pay for health care. Liberal and conservative lawmakers, health care providers, insurers, employers, employees and frustrated Americans everywhere agree that gaining access to quality care is more difficult -- and too expensive. As many as 37 million Americans do not have health insurance, according to congressional testimony. By the year 2000, 50 million could be uninsured. Another 60 million are said not to have enough insurance. At the same time, health care costs are projected to grow at least 12 percent a year for the next five years. That means a basic package will cost 57 percent more in 1995 than it does today, and 147 percent more by the end of the 1990s.

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