Health Highlights: April 14, 2010

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

States Consider Increased Role for Nurse Practitioners

Twenty-eight states are considering giving nurse practitioners expanded powers as a way of dealing with an impending shortage of primary care doctors.

Nurse practitioners are seeking the right to prescribe narcotics and to practice without having a doctor looking over their shoulder, the Associated Press reported.

But many doctors oppose the idea of boosting the authority of nurse practitioners, and the American Medical Association argues that a doctor shortage doesn’t justify putting nurses in charge and endangering patients.

Nurse practitioners counter that they’re highly trained and as skilled as doctors at diagnosing patients during office visits, spend more time with patients, and charge less than doctors, the AP reported.

In recent years, nurse practitioners have assumed a bigger role in U.S. health care, especially in areas with doctor shortages.


Twitter May Offer Early Warning of Epidemics: Study

The social networking and micro-blogging site Twitter could prove to be an effective early warning system for epidemics, British experts say.

Researchers at London’s City University found that about three million “tweets” that contained the word “flu” were posted on Twitter between May and December 2009, during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

“The numbers of tweets we collected by searching by keywords such as ‘flu’ or ‘influenza’ has been astronomical,” study co-author Patty Kostkova told Agence France Presse. “What we’re looking at now is, what is the potential of this enormous data set for early warning systems? Because it’s a real time media, it can call for an immediate response if required.”

The study was presented at the
European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.


Improve Meat Supply Safety: Report

The federal government must do more to guarantee that beef eaten by Americans is free of “residual veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals,” says a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector general.

The audit says better meat safety can be achieved through improved coordination between the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ABC News reported.

“We found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues,” said the document. “Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce.”

It continued: “Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs,” ABC News reported.


Discovery May Lead to Better Ovarian Cancer Treatments

An antibody that makes ovarian cancer cells more vulnerable to the body’s immune system has been identified by researchers at the University of Vienna, Austria.

They found that the AD5-10 antibody lowered tumor cells’ resistance to a protein called TRAIL, which triggers cancer cells to kill themselves, Agence France Presse reported.

“We were able to show in both cell cultures and animal models that TRAIL resistant ovarian cancer tumor cells become more sensitive to TRAIL again if TRAIL and AD5-10 are both present at the same time,” said study leader Michael Krainer.

He and his colleagues also found that AD5-10 boosts the effectiveness of several chemotherapy drugs, AFP reported.

The findings, published Monday, may lead to new treatments for ovarian cancer, a leading cause of cancer death among women.


Pre-Abortion Screenings Required Under New Nebraska Law

In what would be a first in the United States, Nebraska appears poised to enact a law that requires doctors to screen women for mental and physical problems before they perform an abortion.

If a woman isn’t screened before an abortion, she could file a civil suit. Doctors who perform an abortion without screening the patient will not face criminal charges and won’t lose their medical licenses, the Associated Press reported.

The bill received final approval from the Legislature Monday, and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman’s office said he will sign the bill Tuesday, along with another bill that would ban abortions for women more than 20 weeks pregnant.

Pro-choice groups condemned both bills. They said the first bill will limit abortions by intimidating doctors who might perform them, while the second bill blocks late-term abortions in one of the few states where doctors are willing to perform them, the AP reported.

It’s expected that both bills will be challenged in court.