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This week in the medical journals

By Peggy Peck
MedPage Today Managing Editor

Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content. A medical journal roundup from MedPage Today appears each Thursday.

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Flu Season

Already a menace

Whether bird flu will transform itself from a threat into a global pandemic is still anyone's guess, but in the major medical journals this week there was evidence that garden-variety influenza is already a lethal menace.

Deadly flu

The influenza strain that attacked the U.S. during the 2003-2004 flu season killed 153 children, most of them babies and toddlers, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The take-home message from this report is that flu is a serious illness with deadly complications. That means that the U.S. needs to do a better job of preventing and controlling the flu that is already among us, rather than just mobilizing for a pandemic that might arrive in the future.

Flu or complications killed 153 children in U.S. in 2003-2004 seasonexternal link

Lupus and the pill

Also in this week's New England Journal of Medicine was reassuring news for young women with lupus. A pair of studies, reaching the same conclusion, reported that it is safe for these women to take birth control pills.

In the past, doctors worried that hormones contained in birth control pills could trigger a lupus flare, meaning a sudden increase in symptoms such as fatigue, fever, rash, and open sores. It's estimated that about one in 2,000 Americans have lupus, but in young women that estimate jumps to one in 250.

The pill called okay after all for women with stable lupusexternal link

Cholesterol's ties to high blood pressure

For men and women, high blood pressure and high cholesterol -- especially elevated levels of LDL-C, the so-called bad cholesterol -- are both significant risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Now Harvard researchers studying data from more than 3,000 male physicians report that high total cholesterol levels significantly increase the risk for future development of high blood pressure.

Cholesterol goes up, they wrote in Hypertension, Journal of the American Hospital Association, years before blood pressure hits dangerous highs.

On the flip side, they said that men who have high concentrations of HDL-C, the protective form of cholesterol, are significantly less likely to develop high blood pressure down the road.

Lipid elevations predict hypertension in menexternal link\

Imuran for multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a difficult and disabling disease for which treatments have generally been only modestly effective. This week researchers in Florence, Italy, said that a drug used to treat kidney transplant recipients and patients with rheumatoid arthritis may provide a new option for MS patients.

The drug, Imuran (azathioprine), suppresses the immune system. In a study published in the Archives of Neurology, the researchers reported that the drug appears to reduce the number of new brain lesions in patients with relapsing-remitting MS.

But the study involved just 14 patients, so more research will be needed.

Imuran stops new brain lesions in MS patients

Hole in the heart

When New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, had a stroke last year, his physicians pointed to a hole in his heart as the reason for the blood clot that caused the stroke.

Now, however, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that a hole in the heart doesn't really increase stroke risk.

The Mayo team studied almost 600 healthy adults age 45 or older and reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that people with patent foramen ovale -- the medical term for hole in the heart -- are no more likely to have strokes than people who have normal hearts.

This finding won't matter to Bruschi who had his heart patched up in March and returned to play this season.

Patent foramen ovale does not increase stroke riskexternal link

Overnight shift risks

Working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is the way most Americans earn a living, but some of us are on the graveyard shift, 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Now there is a suggestion that pregnant women on the graveyard shift might rethink their hours. According to a study by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health, women who work late nights during the first trimester of pregnancy are 50 percent more likely to deliver preterm.

But while night work increases the risk of premature delivery, jobs that require long hours, say, standing all day or heavy lifting, don't increase the risk for delivering preemies, they wrote in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Working night shift, but not heavy lifting, is risk factor for preterm birthexternal link

Breast cancer as risk factor

And speaking of risk, researchers in Copenhagen reported that data from more than 500,000 breast cancer survivors suggests that breast cancer is a risk factor for a number of other cancers.

Moreover, the increased risk for other "primary" cancers such as lung cancer, thyroid cancer, and leukemia lasts for more than 10 years.

The finding was reported in the International Journal of Cancer.

Breast cancer significantly increases risk of other cancersexternal link

Fiber flops

In the world of medicine sometimes what seems like a slam dunk doesn't even hit the backboard.

That was the case this week when Harvard researchers burst a lot of bubbles by reporting that dietary fiber doesn't reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

But before you throw out that broccoli, the researchers also said that fiber from whole plants is beneficial for heart disease and diabetes.

The report in the Journal of the American Medical Association was based on data form 13 studies that included almost three-quarters of a million people.

No fiber benefit found for colorectal cancerexternal link

Just my cup of tea

Finally, while fiber fizzled, tea once again indicated that it has the right stuff.

Middle-age women who drink two or more cups of tea daily reduced their risk for developing ovarian cancer by 40 percent, according to a report in Archives of Internal Medicine.

And that's not all -- the benefit extends to either green or black tea and the risk decreases by another 18 percent for every additional cup of tea consumed.

Endnote: Score one for the tea tipplers.

Tea tippling linked to lower ovarian cancer riskexternal link

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