In Brief

October 04, 2007

Amoeba has killed 6 people this year


It sounds like science fiction but it's true: A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it's killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases.

"This is definitely something we need to track," said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we'd expect to see more cases."

According to the CDC, the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri (nuh-GLEER-ee-uh FOWL-erh-eye) killed 23 people in the United States from 1995 to 2004. This year, health officials noticed a spike with six cases -- three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. The CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since its discovery in Australia in the 1960s.

Though infections tend to be found in Southern states, Naegleria lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.

People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers. In the later stages, they'll show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, Beach said.

Once infected, most people have little chance of survival.

Associated Press


Mercury doesn't cause learning difficulties

A study of 1,047 children who received mercury-containing vaccines as infants has concluded that the mercury does not cause learning difficulties or developmental delays.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which paid for the $5.3 million study, said the agency was still trying to assess one finding: Boys with the greatest exposure to vaccines containing mercury had twice the risk of developing tics compared with boys with the lowest mercury exposures.

Schuchat, who heads the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said other studies have detected a correlation between mercury exposure and tics. She noted, however, that the tics were not reported by parents but by evaluators who assessed the children during the study, raising questions about whether the small muscular spasms posed a real problem.

"The finding may or may not have importance," she said.

The report in the Sept. 27 New England Journal of Medicine did not examine whether mercury causes autism, as some scientists and advocacy groups have argued. Mercury is a component of thimerosal, which until recently was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines.

The latest study should reassure parents that vaccines are safe and do not cause other kinds of neuropsychological harm, Schuchat said.

Los Angeles Times


`ER' causes some to change habits

Viewers of NBC's drama ER appear to be taking some of the story lines to heart. Analyzing data from three surveys, both mail- and Web-based, University of Southern California researchers found that some viewers decided to mend unhealthful ways after watching three specific episodes of ER that aired in spring 2004.

The episodes included a story about a black teen, struggling with obesity and hypertension, who was advised to eat more vegetables and get more exercise.

Published in the Sept. 14 Journal of Health Communication, the study found that the viewers were 65 percent more likely to report a positive change in their diet or exercise practices than nonviewers. In addition, viewers demonstrated a 5 percent increase in nutrition knowledge when compared with nonviewers.

"The most important finding," says Thomas W. Valente, associate professor of preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine, "is that you can put a small message in a prime-time TV show, and lots of people will see it and understand it and may even change their attitudes and behaviors as a consequence."

Los Angeles Times

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