Friday, August 10, 2007
"Look, Daddy, there's a snake under my tricycle!"
By Caleb Hellerman
Senior Producer

My 3-year-old son loves snakes, the ones he's seen in books. After his recent pronouncement, I strolled out of the garage and peered under his tricycle, about a dozen feet away. A stick was lying underneath the pedals. What an imagination! But there was something about it... A few steps closer, I caught my breath, plastered a smile on my face and asked my son if he wouldn't like to step inside for just a moment.

"Look, Daddy, there's a snake under my tricycle!"

From a safe distance, I examined the copperhead in my driveway. I could see that he - or she -- only an expert can tell -- was just two feet long but impressively thick around the middle. I recognized him from a few weeks back, when I accidentally almost grabbed him, or maybe it was his friend, while weeding a patch of ivy. Since I admire these beautiful animals, I let him be - that time. But under the tricycle was too close for comfort. I got an axe and lopped off his head. If you find yourself in the same position, use a shovel or other long object to pick up the dead snake. Even a severed head can still bite, reflexively.

About 8,000 people are bitten each year by venomous snakes in the U.S., according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. Snakes don't seek out humans; the typical victim is a young man who tries to pick up the animal or a hiker who steps on one by mistake. Encounters spike in the summer, when reptiles are more active and people spend more time outside.

What to do if you're bitten? First, forget what you may have learned. Don't use a tourniquet or make cuts near the bite or try to suck out the venom. And don't delay. Unless you're sure it's a non-venomous species, head for an emergency room, says Dr. Brian Daley, a surgeon in the division of Trauma and Critical Care at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville. If you're in a truly remote area, you can self-treat by immobilizing the bite with a splint and applying pressure with an Ace bandage, says Dr. Eric Lavonas, an emergency physician and toxicologist in Charlotte, North Carolina. The pressure can prevent a dangerous dip in blood pressure, but isn't a long-term solution. Anything that reduces circulation also keeps the body from flushing the toxin, which leaves it concentrated in the bitten area and increases the risk of tissue damage, says Lavonas. Above all, get outside medical help, fast.

The venom of a copperhead, rattlesnake or cottonmouth "is designed to turn a mouse into mush, and it'll start doing the same to your hand," explains Lavonas. The poison causes hemorrhaging and swelling around the bitten hand, arm or foot, and throughout the body in severe cases. Coral snakes, found in Florida and some parts of the Southwest, inject a nerve toxin like a cobra's. Even venomous snakes don't always release poison into the wound, but if they do, expect excruciating pain, warns Daley.

Depending on the bite's severity, and the type of snake involved - a copperhead's bite is generally much less dangerous than that of a rattlesnake -- doctors may give antivenom to neutralize the poison, or simply watch and wait. The downside of antivenom is that it can cause an allergic reaction, though newer versions have sharply reduced that risk, say experts. Nationwide, most years, fewer than 10 bites prove fatal, but many victims complain of lingering pain for months or even years afterwards.

Have you had an encounter with a dangerous creature? Tell us.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Keeping your cool in a heat wave
Talk about hot! Yesterday's high here in Washington was 102 degrees - a record! The heat index rose to 110 degrees -- that's how the air feels with the combination of heat and humidity. I admit I was working in an air-conditioned office with a jacket on because it was so cold, but my 10-year-old daughter was sweating it out at soccer camp. As the temperature continued to rise I began to get a little concerned about whether this was a day she should have stayed home. I worried -- did she have enough liquids? Would she remember to put on her sunscreen? Should she have worn a white shirt instead of orange? Should I have given her more tips on how to know if you're in heat-related trouble? Things like: if you're dizzy, if you have a throbbing headache, if your skin gets red or feels hot, but you've stopped sweating get to a shady area and get help immediately.
Washington isn't sweltering alone. An oppressive heat wave is sweeping the country, and relief is not in sight for at least a couple of days. So we must ride the wave and do what we can to stay healthy and safe. Those most at risk are children, the elderly and people with chronic health problems, but everyone should know how to cool off.
There are plenty of tips out there. Drinking lots of fluids is a no-brainer; you need to do that even if you're not involved in strenuous activity, and don't wait until you're thirsty. Don't drink alcohol or lots of sugar --- these actually cause you to lose body fluid. Avoid very cold drinks. Cut out the exercise -- and if you can't do that, cut back. And remember, sports drinks can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. If you can, limit outdoor activity to morning and evening hours when it's cooler.
Outside wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. But if at all possible, stay indoors in air-conditioning. If you don't have air-conditioning at home, you can take a cool shower or bath or seek out a cool place -- the mall or a movie theater or the library -- for a few hours.
Remember, heat, humidity, sunshine and smog equal unhealthy conditions. If the quality of the air you're breathing is bad you're more likely to suffer respiratory problems. About 400 people a year die from exposure to excessive heat. So far thee deaths have been attributed to this heat. But what do you think? Is the heat is serious business? Or are we making too much out of a little sunshine?
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
An ounce of prevention could save lives
by Miriam Falco
Managing Editor, Medical News

I've prepared a lot CNN segments on preventing illness over the last seven years as a medical producer. But according to a new study, not enough of us are getting the message. Not even some doctors. Our health-care system is not necessarily geared toward prevention. But what if it were? (Watch Video)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned a report to determine which preventive measures would have the biggest impact in saving lives. The non-profit health policy group "Partnership for Prevention" (PFP) found that simply increasing the number of people who follow 5 existing prevention recommendations would save more than a 100,000 lives each year. That's more than the population of Green Bay, Wisconsin or Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So what exactly are these five recommendations?

** Right now less than half of Americans who should be taking aspirin daily to prevent heart disease do so. If that number went up to 90 percent, 45,000 additional lives would be saved --at a cost of pennies a day.

** Only about a quarter of all smokers are advised by health care professionals to quit smoking and given tools to do so. If that number were raised to 90 percent of smokers, then 42,000 additional lives would be saved each year.

** Less than half of Americans older than 50 get screened for colon cancer - get that number up to 90 percent and 14,000 additional lives could be saved.

** Each year the CDC says get your flu shot - but only 37 percent of adults older than 50 actually get one. Raising that stat up to 90 percent would save 12,000 more lives.

** Finally, only two-thirds of women older than 40 get screened for cancer every 2 years - if that number increased to 90 percent, almost 4,000 lives would be saved annually. (Full Report).

So why aren't more of us taking aspirin, quitting smoking or getting cancer screenings?

Maybe it's because many of us don't think about going to the doctor when we are healthy, but go only when we're sick. According to the PFP report, many doctors and nurses lack a system to track the patients who need preventive care. And when it comes to telling patients to quit smoking, some doctors aren't always comfortable doing so.

Another hurdle is the cost of preventive services. In many cases, high deductibles have to be met before preventive medicine is covered by insurance. Those who don't have insurance are even more likely not to go to the doctor if they aren't sick. They probably can't afford it. Something has to change. One of the study's authors, Ashley Coffield says it's important to remove financial restraints in order to increase demand for more preventive services.

But Coffield says lawmakers need to make prevention the cornerstone of America's health-care system. "Too many people are dying prematurely or living with disease that could have been prevented," Coffield says. "We could get more out of our health-care dollars if more preventive measures were taken. We can pay now or pay a lot more later."

Have you been screened for cancer? Can you afford to go to the doctor when you're not sick? What preventive measures do you take to stay healthy?
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
The future of food
Gummi bears infused with vitamins, just one display at last week's meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. The IFT show drew 20,000 attendees.
By Caleb Hellerman
Senior Producer

Food technology: the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe, nutritious, and wholesome food.

I spent last weekend surrounded by food technologists. I was in Chicago, researching an upcoming Dr. Sanjay Gupta special about nutrition and obesity and attending a conference run by the Institute of Food Technologists. The FDA food safety chief was talking about spinach safety. Top execs from General Mills, Kraft and Campbell's were talking about kid-healthy foods. The Army was showing off its new MREs for Afghanistan, and there were sleeping models, a ventriloquist's dummy and a belly dancer. Let's just say that when the IFT puts on a show, it's a big one.

This year, the conference buzzwords were "nutraceuticals" (a combination of the words "nutrition" and "pharmaceutical") and "functional food." IFT spokesman Roger Clemens, also a pharmacy professor at the University of Southern California, predicts that in the not-too-distant future, "functional food" will be a $600 billion market - yes, he said billion with a "b." Even if there's some hyperbole - supermarket food sales as a whole totaled $500 billion last year, according to industry analysts - it's still a big market.

OK, but what are nutraceuticals and functional foods?

In Japan, according to Makoto Shimizu, a professor at the University of Tokyo, more than 650 products are approved as "Food for Specified Health Use," from fighting fatigue to preventing allergies. It's a lot easier to qualify for the label, than it is to get the ingredients approved as medicine in the U.S. But Clemens says the legal and regulatory climate is changing. "Where does food end and the medicine begin?" As the benefits of certain foods are examined more closely, he says, "Maybe the definition will change as to what connotes a drug."

You could find one simple functional food at several exhibitors' tables: vitamin-infused candy. Worthless, a prominent nutrition expert told me, although he didn't want his name used. I'm not sure I agree. Of course it would be healthier to eat a complete diet, full of vegetables, but who has the time? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that barely 1 percent of children and teenagers meet government guidelines for a healthy diet. Neither they nor I were surprised.

If my kids are munching on candy anyway, is it really so bad if it's giving them their RDA at the same time? Is there a healthy food product you would like to see on the shelves?
Monday, August 06, 2007
Addiction claims another innocent life
Last month, my husband's grandson, Jonathan, killed himself. He didn't use a gun or a rope. He didn't take a bunch of pills. He sat down on a motel bed, rolled up his sleeve and injected himself with not just one, but two lethal drugs. Passers-by noticed him convulsing in the room. He had left the shades open. He wanted to be found. By the time they busted down the door, Jonathan was brain dead. He was rushed to the ER. His mother sped to the hospital to see him, but he never woke up. She was forced to make a decision. Keep him "alive" with tubes and machines or let him go. She chose the latter.

No one should have to bury a child. But every day, parents, loved ones and friends, attend funerals for the very young. Some die because of car crashes. Other lives are cut short by diseases. But many, too many children die from drugs.

Jonathan was 20 years old. In his early days of high school he was a good student, a star athlete (colleges were talking to him about playing football) and a real personality. Handsome, charming, charismatic, he had it all. When he sat down with a group of friends to smoke a little marijuana, he never thought he'd get hooked.

But there was something about Jonathan's personality that seemed to enjoy the high that drugs gave him. He went from marijuana to crystal meth. From there he moved to crack, then heroin. He got so hooked that he began to steal -- from stores, even from his mother. He eventually ended up in jail. Then he went to a halfway house, then to a rehab center. He'd try to stay clean but he'd eventually go back to the "stuff." He lived in parks, with friends, in the alleys of his neighborhood. His mother tried to get him help. He was on a roller coaster through hell and she was being dragged along for the ride. She talked to the legal system, the police, even drug experts asking for their advice. No matter what help she gave him, it just never seemed to work. His situation seemed hopeless.

This story is tragic enough, but here's the twist. Jonathan actually got clean. Back in December, after he served his longest jail term, he decided he was never going back. He got a good job, met a nice girl, went to live with his mom and started taking courses at the local community college. He was on the right track.

But drugs are everywhere, and they found Jonathan again in early July. From there the story gets cloudy. But his mother knew he was using again. She argued with him and he ended up at his girlfriend's home. On July 11, he left a note, drove to a hotel and shot up lethal doses of cocaine and heroin. He never saw his mother or his friends again. He died alone.

I can't tell you the grief that I feel for my stepdaughter. She is a single mom, a hard worker, devoted to her son. He was her only child. He was her world. Jonathan is gone now, and his mother lives with the emptiness and sorrow that only the death of a child can bring. I know she thinks about what she could have done, or what she didn't do. Everyone tells her it's not her fault, and it's not, but still she wonders. Many doctors will tell you that Jonathan had an addictive personality and that no matter what anyone did, drugs would have been in his life. He was a smart young man, he knew he was destroying himself. He just couldn't stop. Unfortunately, the drugs stopped him.

On the day of his funeral, his mother stood in front of a room filled with 300 people. As she thanked everyone for coming she spoke these final words of the service: "For the last four years, I have woken up in the morning, wondering if my son was safe. From now on, I'll wake up and know he's not suffering any more."

Do you know of someone who's addicted to drugs? Are there programs you know of that can help families of drug addicts? Let us know.
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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