Friday, July 27, 2007
The issue of flip-flopping
I recently spent some time at the beach, trading a suit and high heels for shorts and flip flops. When I returned home my feet and lower legs were killing me. It didn't take an expert to figure out that the cute sandals were to blame.

Apparently, I'm not the only one complaining about the trendy footwear. Podiatrists are seeing more and more patients with pain in the Achilles tendon, heel and balls of their feet. One doctor attributes most of the problems to the increased use of sandals and flip flops. The thin-soled shoes don't have the proper arch support and cushioning to protect the feet.

For those of you who aren't willing to compromise on comfort and style, there are some ways to relieve the pain. Stretching your calves can help sore feet and leg muscles. Ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications might provide temporary relief as well.

The best treatment might be to choose a better type of sandal. Find one with good arch support and cushioning and a little bit of a heel. A 1/2 - to 3/8-inch lift will help keep the calf muscle flexible and reduce that aches and pains.

My feet and legs are feeling much better these days, but I can't help thinking I'd rather be walking on the beach in my flip flops than sitting at my cubicle in high heels.

Do you have a flip flop story to share or some advice?
Thursday, July 26, 2007
The river runs red
Zhu Chuuyun lost her husband to cancer; she says a polluted river caused it.
Deep in the Guangdong province of China, I met a woman I won't soon forget.

Wearing a straw hat and carrying a sickle, Zhu Chuuyun is a farmer, growing rice like many in her village. She has an easy smile, with astonishingly perfect teeth and the beautiful face of a model. Both she and her 9-year-old daughter belong on the cover of magazines. Of course, she is far away from the world of glamour and fashion. Here in Liangqiao, Zhu Chuuyun is simply trying to survive. It isn't easy, and every day she worries about the health of her and her daughter.

She told me it all started when the water in her village turned red. First the red water claimed her crops, and then it stole away her husband. He died an awful death, suffering for more than a year before finally succumbing to cancer. The problem, as she described it to me, is that the Hengshui River, which provides the only water to her village, has become so polluted that it is slowly robbing the entire area of life. The most tragic thing is that she has no choice but to use this water, even though she believes it is killing people. She told me this over quiet tears, sobbing and talking about how much she misses her husband.

Despite the health risks, Zhu says she and her daughter still depend on the river for their sustenance.
For a couple of days, we have been looking around the area where Zhu Chuuyun lives. Many refer to this particular place as a cancer village. In fact, nearly 30 out of the 400 people who call this village home have died of cancer over the last several years. While it is hard to say if this red water is the cause, we have learned a few things. The river is in fact red, allegedly because of the oxidation, or rusting, of heavy metals that are released during the mining process at Dabaoshan, a mine through which the river runs 60 kilometers away. That same mining process also results in the deposition of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, zinc and cadmium into the water at staggeringly high levels, and we do know those chemicals can cause cancer. In fact, according to scientists, Hengshui River is now a grade five out of five, meaning it is too toxic to touch, let alone irrigate crops or drink.

Xing Jing, an environmental lawyer, is determined to sue the mining company. This young Chinese woman, who reminds me of Erin Brockovich, has been steadily collecting evidence to TRY to make the case on behalf of this cancer village. But given that the country of China runs the mining company, her challenge is a formidable one. Still, Xing Jing wants to do it for people like Zhu Chuuyun and her daughter and the husband and father they'll never see again.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Tracking down the illegal Civet cat
Possesion of Civet cats in China is illegal
The first time I heard of a civet cat was when I was in Iraq as an embedded reporter in the spring of 2003. Every now and then we would be able to dial in some radio news coverage from the desert and I still remember hearing one report about a new respiratory disease called SARS. The reporter went on to say that it had possibly been traced back to the consumption of civet cats in the Guangdong province of China. In fact, at the time it was considered a delicacy on the menu at several local restaurants in the city of Guangzhou.

Given its association with the fatal disease, it is no surprise that possession of the cats is now considered illegal in China. So, imagine my surprise when I visited a marketplace this morning around 5:30 a.m., and immediately walked into a flurry of vendors with these strange-looking cats in their cages. As I started to get a closer look, the vendors immediately became apprehensive and started to cover the cages and scurry away. Frankly, our lights and cameras with videographers Neil Hallsworth and Phil Littleton probably didn't help. Still, there was no doubt these were the elusive civet cats and Craig Kirkpatrick from the wilderness conservation group Traffic confirmed it for me. They certainly do look like cats, as the picture shows, but they have a snout that is considerably longer and more pointed. Most remarkably, according to Kirkpatrick, despite their tumultuous history, their consumption continues to grow.

As Craig and I walked around the market, we saw all sorts of exotic wildlife. One back room was completely filled with turtles. There must've been thousands of them. While most of them come from farms in China, Craig deftly pointed out turtles from Burma and Madagascar, both of which are endangered. When I asked the shop owners about a permit for endangered animals, they quickly gave me the brush-off. Craig explained that while it was illegal, his experience had taught him that the police placed a low priority on fighting the crime. There was even a pair of Tibetan vendors who claimed to be selling the paw and bones of a tiger, an extremely coveted and endangered animal. Its bones are believed to cure arthritis and its blood is said to have an almost mystical quality.

There is no question that deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture is consumption of animals, many of which may seem exotic and in some cases are endangered. These marketplaces I visited were huge with thousands of vendors and unimaginable numbers of animals and animal parts from shark fin to bear bile. From poisonous live scorpions to fungus-infected caterpillars. So high is the demand these animals are being brought in from all over the world, sometimes legally and sometimes poached. We were told in no uncertain terms that for the right amount of money, we could get just about anything we wanted.

The demand is fueled by custom, such as the need to serve shark fin at a proper Chinese wedding or turtle at parties for the affluent. Part of the consumption is driven by traditional Chinese medicine, which is dependent on approximately 11,000 different plants and 1,500 different animals. Some of the consumption is driven by plain old curiosity. One thing for certain though is that as our population - mankind -- continues to grow, certain animal species are declining and even disappearing. We are breathlessly consuming many of our planets natural resources.

So, how do we control this consumption in China and other places in the world?
For more on the upcoming CNN documentary Planet in Peril visit
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Medicine from space
I am floating in darkness, looking down at the earth. All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing - calm, peace and tranquility. I don't wonder where I am or where everyone else is. I just take in the beauty of the view from outer space.

I wake up in a fit and realize I'm dreaming. It happened again last night. I sat in my bedroom looking at the dark stillness and wondering why I've been having that same dream about space travel since childhood.

NASA has been on my mind lately. Last Friday was the 38th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing. Yesterday, two astronauts left the International Space Station for a 6.5 hour spacewalk. Their tasks included removing and jettisoning a refrigerator-sized ammonia reservoir. On our planet, that reservoir would weigh 1,400 pounds.

People have been traveling to space for more than 45 years. Only about 400 humans, five of those space tourists, can consider themselves astronauts. It's a small club and I do realize the infinitesimal odds that my astronaut dreams will ever become reality. As I learn more about how the human body is affected by space travel, maybe I'm better off being a nocturnal Buzz Aldrin.

First, the good news, astronauts gain some 2 to 3 inches in height during a mission according to NASA and the Archives of Neurology. That's presumably because astronauts no longer have the pesky Earthly gravity pulling at their skeletons. Space travelers may gain a few inches, but they do lose a lot more. A phenomenon nicknamed "Moon face" occurs when a shift of fluids to the upper body creates a rounder, fuller face. The immune system changes; blood volume is reduced by about one-fifth; muscle mass decreases and bone loss occurs at about 1 percent per month according to physician astronaut Bernard Harris Jr. Compare that bone loss with the 3 percent to 4 percent a year lost by women who have hormone-related osteoporosis. NASA is vigorously researching ways to combat these effects on long-term space flight. As these scientists look to a mission to Mars that will most likely take one to two years of travel, they need better ways to help the human body cope under such extreme conditions.

Space shuttle missions yield scientific findings on topics affecting everyone -- tumor growth, climate change and telemedicine. Telemedicine, the examination or treatment of patients in remote areas using information communicated over long distances, has NASA to thank for its greatest advances. In 2004, I watched in an operating room as a surgeon in Ontario, Canada, communicated with an astronaut over a thousand miles away in an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida. With the surgeon's telementoring, NASA's Cady Coleman successfully completed a practice run at an emergency gallbladder surgery without any formal medical training. That's just one example of how telemedicine may shape the world of human health.

Do you think NASA or space travel affects you on a daily basis? Will space travel become reality for the average person in our lifetime? What do you think of NASA's contribution to field of research on human health? What do you think the future holds for space travel or telemedicine?
Monday, July 23, 2007
Investigating Chinese medicine at the source
I am on the road working on an upcoming documentary called Planet in Peril. A few weeks ago I was in Central Africa looking at the causes for the disappearance of Lake Chad. Now I am in Beijing, China.

My first stop was something that I had been looking forward to for some time: a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic. Immediately upon entering, I saw two young gentlemen in short white coats carrying around what appeared to be dried snakes on small white pieces of paper. They quickly showed the "prescription" to the doctor and after getting her approval, they wrapped it up and handed it to the patient. "Was that dried snake?" I asked the doctor. She nodded, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Her attitude was not surprising given that 95 percent of people in China use what is called TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are huge textbooks with descriptions of medications that vary from rhinoceros horn to turtle shells and yes, snakes. In the book are not only doses, usually around 15 - 30 grams, but also specific uses such as "thins the blood, acts as a tonic" or my favorite, "restores the yang."

Now, if you are imagining a rustic, rural place in a small Chinese village, think again. The TCM clinic we visited was right in the middle of Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world. Right outside the office doors were fancy electronics and boutique stores selling high-end goods, and there was a long waiting line of well-dressed people with ailments ranging from arthritis to nausea to the common cold. One woman who came in for persistent vomiting was given a seven-day prescription of herbs and dried animal parts, including four different kinds of roots, orange peel, a huge spool of bamboo, shaved bull horn and a touch of turtle shell. The final prescription took up nearly the entire counter with each daily dose the size of a small salad. She was told to pour the entire quantity into a pot of hot water and drink the liquid as a tea. Judging by her happy reaction, she was quite confident this would fix what ailed her.

I even decided to put it to the test myself. I described a raging headache that I was having, probably due to my long travel and numerous days with hardly any sleep. The doctor asked me a series of questions about the headache and my general medical condition and checked my pulse. She had a look at my tongue as well. While I was fully expecting some deer antler shaving or a dollop of dried plants and herbs, she simply smiled and said "go get some sleep."

It was a good diagnosis, but there was still something nagging at me. Many of the animals that provide the ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine are threatened, and some of the techniques used to get some of the animal substances are alarmingly brutal. For example, bear bile is often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. To obtain this rare substance involves sedating a bear and then sticking a long needle straight into the bear's gallbladder and slowly filling up a glass jar with the green substance. It is not only dangerous and barbaric, but also life threatening for the bear. When I asked the doctor about this, she told me that TCM has recently evolved and no endangered species are used in making the medicine and brutal techniques have been stopped as well. She said the punishments are very severe if someone is caught doing it. When I pushed her on this particular issue, she conceded that there are probably places still offering some of these substances, but they were not available in her clinic.

One of the reasons I wanted to pursue this story is in part my own curiosity as a doctor, but also because medicine seems to transcend borders unlike anything else. In fact, many of the same "prescriptions" previously relegated only to China and the Far East, are now available at stores focusing on health and wellness in the United States. Ironically, one young woman told me the newest generation of Chinese citizens has started to shy away from TCM, opting instead for Western medicine such as aspirin for headaches and prepackaged cold medicine. There in fact may come a day when Traditional Chinese Medicine may be more popular outside China than inside the country where it has been popular for thousands of years.

So, would you try TCM to treat yourself or a loved one? Do you think in the United States that we have been too close minded to what Far Eastern medicine has to offer? Do you have any particular stories of your own experience with TCM?

For more behind-the scenes reports from our work on Planet in Peril, visit the "Anderson Cooper 360" blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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