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NPR Health News Briefs: Jan. 9 - Jan. 16

Read a roundup of the latest health briefs from NPR:

Gene Study Offers Hope for the Deaf

Jan. 14, 2005 — Researchers have been able to regenerate sound-detecting cells in the inner ear. They hope it will lead to a cure for deafness.

Exquisitely sensitive cells in the ear called hair cells translate sound waves into electrical impulses. The brain interprets those. That's how we hear.

But hair cells are easily damaged by loud sounds, trauma or chemicals. Fish, amphibians and birds can regenerate hair cells. Mammals cannot.

Researchers report in the journal Science that they've been able to get mouse hair cells to regenerate by blocking a single gene. Zheng-Yi Chen of Massachusetts General Hospital led the team.

"This is the first time anyone has shown that in a mammal, the inner-ear hair cells can actually reproduce themselves to generate new and functional hair cells," Zheng-Yi Chen says.

Ultimately, Chen and his colleagues hope to do the same thing for human hair cells. — Richard Knox

Cases Rising, But Flu Season Still Mild

Jan. 14, 2005 — Officials say cases of flu are increasing, but it's still a mild flu season. Even so, they're urging Americans at risk of flu complications to get vaccinated.

Flu outbreaks are concentrated in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. Only Vermont, New York state and New York City report widespread flu. Another 25 states and the District of Columbia have regional or local outbreaks.

Flu accounted for 3 percent of doctor and emergency rooms visits during the last week of 2004. That's below the traffic over the last three seasons.

Deaths related to flu or pneumonia are lower than the level considered epidemic. Very few children have been hospitalized with confirmed flu. One child in Maine has died.

Officials encourage people over 65, those with chronic conditions and others at risk of flu complications to seek flu shots. Despite earlier shortages, most of them should be able to find vaccine. — Richard Knox

Blacks Do Better on Treating High-Blood Pressure

Jan. 13, 2005 — African Americans do worse on a wide range of health measures than Caucasian Americans. But when it comes to high blood pressure treatment, African-Americans do better, a new report finds.

Forty-one percent of blacks have high blood pressure, versus 27percent among whites. But a higher proportion of blacks know they have hypertension.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shows a higher percentage of blacks is getting treatment. About 30 percent of both blacks and whites have their blood pressure under control. That means 70 percent of both groups are not getting effective hypertension treatment. The success rate is even lower among Mexican Americans.

On other health measures, blacks do considerably worse. For instance, they're much more likely to suffer from infectious diseases ranging from gonorrhea to hepatitis-B to dangerous strep infections. The CDC study did not address the reasons for the disparities. — Richard Knox

Lead in Toy Jewelry Crackdown

Jan. 13, 2005 — A congressman has called on a federal consumer safety agency to take stronger steps to protect children from toy jewelry with high amounts of lead. Such jewelry poses a health danger if swallowed or put in a child's mouth.

Congressman Henry Waxman said the government needs to force toy jewelry makers to stop using lead. Some major companies have already volunteered to stop. But other costume jewelry continues to be sold with high amounts of lead — often made in China or India.

Earlier this week, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that one company had agreed to recall 7,000 charm bracelets sold in department stores. And last summer, the agency recalled 150 million toy tokens sold in gumball machines.

Waxman said those recalls show that the government needs tougher standards. A spokesman for the government consumer office said it had already begun a review of regulations for toy jewelry. — Joseph Shapiro

More Medicaid Changes

Jan. 12, 2005 — For the second time in two days, a governor is proposing sweeping changes to the Medicaid health program for the poor.

Florida is experiencing the same problem with Medicaid as most states. Health care costs are rising faster than state revenues. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush says he thinks giving Medicaid patients more choices — and private health plans more financial responsibility — can help hold down Medicaid costs.

That's not too different from what Tennessee thought 10 years ago when it launched its TennCare program to replace Medicaid. But savings didn't materialize, and on Tuesday, Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredeson announced plans to drop more than 300,000 adults from the TennCare rolls — nearly a quarter of the caseload.

Governors say they could use more help from the federal government, which already pays more than half of all Medicaid costs. But with a burgeoning federal deficit, Congress this year is expected to look at ways to cut, not add to, its Medicaid tab. — Julie Rovner

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it overestimated the numbers of Americans dying of obesity related illness.

CDC officials published a letter in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association correcting what they describe as a "computer" error. The error occured in March last year and appeared in CDC statistics.

The data indicated that the number of deaths caused by poor diet and physical inactivity increased by 100,000 over a ten year period. That increase meant that obesity was about to overtake smoking as the nation's number one cause of death.

Now, health officials have modified the number. They say obesity-related deaths increased by 65,000 over that ten year period — or 35,000 fewer deaths.

Even so, health officials emphasize that poor diet and physical inactivity, along with smoking, remain the leading causes of death.

-- Patricia Neighmond

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