Health Highlights: March 21, 2011

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

U.S. Personnel in Japan Offered Potassium Iodide

U.S. government personnel and their dependents who are in the vicinity of the damaged Japanese nuclear power station are being offered potassium iodide (KI), the State Department said Monday.

Officials said the offer to Americans in Nagoya, Tokyo, Yokohama and 15 prefectures is being made “out of an abundance of caution,” and added that no one should take KI at this time, Agence France-Presse reported.

“While there is no indication that it will become advisable to take KI, out of an abundance of caution the United States government is making it available to its personnel and family members to be used only upon direction if a change in circumstances were to warrant,” the State Department said in a travel warning.

Earlier on Monday, a plume of smoke that rose from one of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear facility led to the removal of workers trying to get the situation under control, AFP reported.


Pelosi Released From Rome Hospital

Following a brief stay in a Rome hospital, U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was released Monday and is resuming her schedule in Italy, says her spokesman.

“After several flights yesterday in Afghanistan, and a long flight back to Italy that arrived early this morning, Leader Pelosi was not feeling well,” Nadeam Elshami said in an e-mailed statement, Bloomberg News reported.

“This morning in Rome, the leader was advised to visit a clinic, and the closest medical facility was a hospital,” the spokesman said.

Pelosi, 70, is on an official trip to Rome with a congressional delegation. Her health concerns forced her to cancel a meeting with the Italian defense minister, Bloomberg reported.



WHO Concerned About Radiation Levels in Japanese Food

A immediate ban on the sale of food from areas around the damaged Japanese nuclear plant is needed if the food has excessive levels of radiation, says the World Health Organization.

Contaminated food poses a greater long-term risk to people’s health than radioactive particles in the air, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told the Associated Press.

“They’re going to have to take some decisions quickly in Japan to shut down and stop food being used completely from zones which they feel might be affected,” he said. “Repeated consumption of certain products is going to intensify risks, as opposed to radiation in the air that happens once and then the first time it rains there’s no longer any radiation in the air.”

Some Japanese milk and vegetables have “significantly higher” radiation levels than what is allowed under Japanese law, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It was expected that Japanese officials on Tuesday would have a comprehensive plan to limit food shipments from radiation-affected areas, the AP reported.


Study Participants Riddled With Metal Particles

Hundreds of tiny particles of the heavy metal tungsten were left in the chest muscles and breast tissue of about 30 U.S. breast cancer patients who took part in a study of new radiation technique.

The particles came from a device called the Axxent FlexiShield Mini, which was used to shield healthy tissue from radiation. The device has since been recalled, The New York Times reported.

It’s not known if the tungsten particles pose a threat to the women’s health because little research has been done on its long-term effects in the body. However, the metal does show up on mammograms and may make them difficult to read.

Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the manufacturer could explain what went wrong with the Axxent FlexiShield Mini device.

The incident raises questions about safeguards for people who participant in medical research and about the FDA’s ability to protect patients from defective medical devices, The Times reported.


Trial Begins in Hurricane Katrina Hospital Deaths Lawsuit

A jury trial involving a lawsuit over deaths and injuries that occurred at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina is set to begin Monday.

The class-action suit against Tenet Healthcare Corporation alleges that a number of problems at Memorial Medical Center, including insufficiencies in the backup electrical system and failed plans for patient care and evacuation, resulted in personal injury and death, The New York Times reported.

The bodies of 45 patients were discovered at the hospital following Hurricane Katrina, far more than at any other hospital. Some doctors later admitted they injected patients with drugs to speed their deaths. The hospital sheltered about 1,800 people after the August 2005 storm.

It’s expected that the hearing will feature previously unreleased email exchanges between the hospital and its corporate headquarters in Dallas, The Times reported.

“Are you telling us we are on our own and you cannot help?” Sandra Cordray, a communications manager at the hospital wrote to Tenet officials after asking them for supplies and an airlift.


Blood Test Reveals Long-Term Diabetes Risk

A simple blood test could detect diabetes up to 10 years before the first symptoms appear, according to U.S. researchers.

Their study of 2,422 people found that examining levels of five amino acids in the blood correctly identified the 201 people who went on to develop type 2 diabetes, BBC News reported.

Those with the highest levels of the amino acids were five times more likely to develop diabetes within the following 12 years.

The findings in the journal Nature Medicine suggest that a test like this could be used to screen for type 2 diabetes, said the Harvard University team.

They added that further studies are needed before the test could be available for general use, BBC News reported.


Boston Hospital Performs First U.S. Full-Face Transplant

The first full face transplant in the United States has been performed by doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The procedure last week involved a 25-year-old patient from Forth Worth, Texas. Surgeons replaced the entire facial area of Dallas Wiens, including the nose, lips, facial skin, and muscles and nerves of facial movement, the Associated Press reported.

The surgery, which took more than 15 hours, is “a new milestone in … transplant surgery,” according to Betsy Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Spanish doctors performed the world’s first full-face transplant in 2010, the AP reported.