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August 31st, 2009
02:13 PM ET

Remembering my father's fight against cancer

By Marcy Heard
CNN Producer

Researching cancer statistics for CNN’s Medical Unit reminded me of my own father’s battle with the illness.  It was nearly two years ago when Dad was told he had esophageal cancer.  The diagnosis took the entire family by surprise – we had not heard of esophageal cancer and didn’t even know the symptoms of the disease.  We all knew Dad had not been feeling well, but he was still active and as cantankerous as ever.   Two questions arose during our conversations – How long would he live? and Could he be cured?

Marvin Beck and his daughter, Marcy Heard

The American Cancer Society estimates that 16,470 new cases of esophageal cancer are diagnosed each year.  14,280 people die from the disease and only 16 percent will survive the next five years.  African Americans are twice as likely as Caucasians to develop esophageal cancer and it is seen more frequently in men.  Symptoms of esophageal cancer include difficulty swallowing, weight loss, chest pain and fatigue.  What Dad had repeatedly dismissed as “getting older” and as “heartburn” was actually his body’s way of telling him something was very wrong.

For my father, esophageal cancer treatment meant that most of his esophagus would be removed along with the majority of his stomach.  The radiation and chemotherapy treatments left him weak and unable to live alone.  My brother and his wife cared for him in their own home after each cycle and kept the rest of the family updated on Dad’s progress.  From the very beginning both my brother and father wore yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets and remained positive at the possibility of survival.

The hope for a cure burst into joy in December 2006 with the news that Dad was cancer free.  But the happy news was short lived as Dad was hospitalized just after Christmas.  I remember the nurse cutting the yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet from his wrist as Dad asked if it was really necessary.  When told yes, he scowled and lay back on the pillow.  The news we received was not good; the cancer had returned. Dad’s race ended in the early hours of January 26, 2007 – six months to the day of his diagnosis.

My brother still has Dad’s bracelet and has never taken off the one he wore during Dad’s treatment.  To me, the now worn and faded band is a testimony of one life lost in the battle against cancer.  My father ran the race with great patience and faith; we can only continue to do the same each day while working towards a cure.

I made an online dedication for my father as part of the LIVESTRONG World Cancer Declaration.  Dad continues to be an inspiration to me, and I hope others take the time to sign the declaration as the race for a cure continues.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Filed under: Cancer

August 28th, 2009
12:06 PM ET

H1N1 and preschoolers

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Senior Medical Producer

In the midst of covering the big story of Senator Kennedy’s death on Wednesday, I found myself frantically scrambling for childcare arrangements – the preschool teacher for my 15-month-old son had gone home sick with a 102-degree fever, and the classroom assistant was running out to pick up her own son, with similar symptoms. The head of the preschool stepped in for the afternoon, but did I really want to send my son back on Thursday? To a teacher and a bunch of toddlers who might or might not have been exposed to a nasty virus?

A year ago I might not have fretted, but I’ve got swine flu on the brain – maybe from covering the story here at CNN, or maybe it’s just that I keep seeing reports of cases here, cases there, all over the country. Last week CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said we’re in a race to make a vaccine available before the H1N1 virus hits. To my eyes, the race is over. The outbreak has started. It may not be the Black Plague, but especially for vulnerable people – like pregnant women, people with underlying illness, or 15-month-old toddlers – it can be quite serious. And anyone with children in school or daycare (we’ve also got a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old) knows that viruses spread fast.

I always teach handwashing and try to use hand sanitizer, but most years I throw up my hands and just accept that the kids will spend a lot of their school year sick. This year, that doesn’t sound so appealing. Our preschool doesn’t yet have a formal plan to deal with H1N1, and neither do a lot of schools in Atlanta – or around the country. My wife, who fortunately happens to be a physician and public health official working on this very issue, is frantically working on detailed guidance for parents at our own preschool. In the meantime, we kept our son home Thursday and Friday. He’s got a cold. No fever, nothing serious – but we’ll just let him rest and go back Monday.

Are you doing anything differently this year, to keep your kids from getting sick?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 27th, 2009
01:32 PM ET

Do masks protect you from H1N1?

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

When H1N1, better known as swine flu, first appeared in April, I saw a lot of video of people wearing face masks. Video from Mexico showed people wearing surgical masks in their effort to protect themselves from this new type of flu. But I also remember when we covered SARS and the H5N1 bird flu, we made a point that those often loose-fitting surgical masks don't protect you from getting sick. (I'm talking about in a non-hospital setting) That's because people usually aren't wearing them properly.

I remember one particular bit of video showing a man crossing the street with the mask covering only his mouth, not his nose. The firmer, more industrial strength N-95 masks are much more effective. But they are hard to wear for a long time because they can make breathing difficult. So I was surprised to see the latest CDC guidelines do recommend face masks in certain settings.

I asked a few experts about this, including the CDC's main point person for the H1N1, Dr. Anne Schuchat, who is the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She told me that in certain settings, particularly if it's difficult to separate sick people from those who are healthy, wearing a mask can help reduce the amount of virus being spread by blocking some of the virus-carrying droplets that can float through the air. As I look at the guidelines on the CDC Web site, I see some other plausible situations, where face masks are recommended. For instance, when you're sharing common spaces with another family member or when you're breastfeeding.

I also asked Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease expert and adjunct professor at Emory University. I thought he had a pretty good explanation: "The masks are helpful because it makes us more conscious of where our hands are going and we are less likely to put our hands on our nose and mouth. Because that's how the virus gets into your system and can make you sick." He also says wearing a mask can make you more conscious about washing your hands and could ultimately lead to behavior change.

A small study this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that if people who had seasonal flu and their families wore surgical face masks and washed their hands in the first 36 hours of symptoms, healthy family members got less seasonal flu. Researchers think the principle would hold true for H1N1 too.

Of course, you don't have to wear a mask. Health officials remind us daily that there are simple ways to protect yourself from the flu and reduce spreading it if you have it already. Cough into a tissue or into your sleeve, not your hands. Wash your hands frequently – even if you cough into your sleeve - because the virus may have lurked on a surface you touched. Get a flu shot – both for the regular flu and for H1N1 when it becomes available. And if you do get sick, stay home, so you don't make other people sick. Other tips can be found at www.flu.gov.

Will you wear a mask? Are you taking special precautions to protect yourself from H1N1? Are you concerned?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 24th, 2009
12:42 PM ET

How do we find life's benchmark?

By Akash Goel
CNN Medical News Intern

Happiness is perhaps the most fundamental pursuit of human nature. If happiness does indeed serve as life's benchmark, shouldn't there be an adequate way to measure a nation's collective emotional health? Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth, two researchers from the University of Vermont, think so.

They are combining traditional mathematics with computer assisted data mining to create what they call a digital "hedonometer." The team analyzed nearly 10 million sentences gathered from 2.3 million blogs using the site wefeelfine.org beginning with the words "I feel" or "I am feeling." The team also examined written cultural artifacts such as song lyrics since the ’60s. They then numerically assigned a happiness score to the statements based on previously derived metrics from linguistic studies.

According to their methods, last year’s Election Day was the happiest in four years, and the day of Michael Jackson's death was one of the unhappiest.

"What we hope is that the signals picked up by our ‘hedonometer' will become of the dashboard of indicators we use in making public policy, business decisions, and so on." said Dodds, professor of mathematics and lead researcher of the study.

"While financial indices such as GDP, the many stock market numbers, consumer confidence, unemployment rates, etc., are all important and useful, we think there's great merit in measuring a more human aspect of society: our collective mood."

They hope their methods will serve as a novel and real-time canvassing tool to access the way events and policy decisions affect our national consciousness. Current methods, which are largely survey based, are limited by sample size and bias–people tend to misreport their feelings in research settings.

"When we directly ask people how they're feeling, we have naturally complicated their response," explained Dodd. "People might reasonably wonder why you're asking them these questions and what sort of response is expected."

What is attractive about this research is that their data streams are unfettered and unfiltered. They are also able to mine Web-scale data sets, an output of millions of bloggers.

While these mega data sets are the study’s strength, they may also be its Achilles’ heel. The team seems to be making broad observations about a nation’s emotions based on text from bloggers, a somewhat homogenous demographic. For example, the study automatically excludes the emotional states of people who don’t have access to a computer.

Dodd acknowledges that although bloggers tend to be younger and more highly educated than average, they are reasonably reflective of ethnic diversity. This demographic “selection” problem is a pitfall inherent to all human behavior research studies because researchers are dependent on those participants who are willing to volunteer. In this case, the participants are those willing and able to document their feelings online.

Harvard psychology researcher Matt Killingsworth and creator of the Web site trackyourhappiness.org identifies one caveat when trying to determine trends based on indiscriminate text.

"While people may be much more likely to use positive words such as 'love' on Valentine's Day," he argues, "that doesn't necessarily mean that people are vastly happier on February 14 than they were on February 13."

While evolving trends in song lyrics may serve as interesting fodder for conversation, Killingsworth also suggests that they may be a misleading indicator of happiness.

"Even if typical song lyrics are much more negative in 2009 than they were 30 or 40 years ago, this doesn't necessarily mean that people are much less happy today," he said. "In fact, what data we have suggests that happiness in the U.S. is about the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago."

While the utility of digital happiness trends may not be immediately obvious - they may be illustrative and communicative of our wants and needs just as any other language.

"Blogging and tweeting leave electronic signatures of ourselves," said Dodd. "Over time, these signatures may be as informative as the much more immediate communication of body language."

Do you blog to share emotions? Do you think that blogs serve as a good indication of a nation's emotional health?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 20th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

Back to School Flus

By Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam
CNN Medical News Intern

This year my back-to-school to do list looks a bit different than it has in previous years. Select senior year courses, check. Purchase school supplies, check. Don’t get swine flu. Um—I’ll try?

Colleges represent a diverse and mobile population. Individuals don’t sleep enough, eat right, practice the best hygiene, or make the healthiest choices. Say you’re at a party, and there is only one used cup left, do you drink from it? In college, too frequently the answer is yes! And if you don’t drink from the dirty red cup, your best friend might. Let’s face it, on campus there are only a few degrees of separation so I’m wondering how I will separate myself from the latest H1N1 viral outbreak.

Swine flu is spread via the same mechanism as regular seasonal influenza. When people with these viruses cough or sneeze the virus is released into the air via tiny in respiratory droplets. You can contract swine flu by coming in contact with these droplets or touching a surface contaminated with these droplets containing the H1N1 virus up to 8 hours after it was deposited.

There were a few cases of swine flu on my campus at the end of last semester. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), avoiding contact with the sick and frequent hand sanitizing can help reduce the risk of spreading the flu. I interviewed some of the members of Harvard’s class of 2009 to find out exactly how swine flu had affected their commencement ceremony, and apparently the seniors I spoke with saw these CDC tips in action. According to graduate Devin Smith, the Dean of the college, “… announced that swine-flu had, in fact, worked its way into Harvard graduation and instructed graduates, family, and friends to refrain from hugging and shaking hands.” Matthew Clair, another recent graduate, noted that everyone at graduation seemed to be coughing and sneezing but, “besides the hand sanitizer they squirted into our hands before we received our diplomas and the general paranoia, graduation proceeded as usual.”

So when I return to campus, will my life proceed as usual too?

Clinical trials for a swine flu vaccine are in progress, and public health officials are hopeful that the swine flu vaccine will be ready for public distribution by mid-October. Due to the number of swine flu cases in my demographic, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has suggested that college-aged students are among the first to get the H1N1 vaccine this fall. The CDC will be updating their recommendations for swine flu prevention and preparedness for institutions of higher learning later today, but so far the organization does not recommend that colleges dismiss lectures or other large gatherings—so unfortunately, summer vacation will not last until mid-October when the vaccine becomes available.

If you do happen to get sick, public health officials recommend that you self-isolate and stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever breaks. Many college students live in dorms so isolation may be difficult. But before you burn all of Sally’s belongings or douse John with holy water you should consult these CDC tips for those living with someone with swine flu.

Exposing yourself to swine flu may seem like the easiest way to build a natural immunity to the H1N1 virus and/or get excused from your midterms. I know the thought has crossed your mind, but don't do it. Swine flu has been mild for many people, but deadly for others– so you should probably devise an alternate, less fatal scheme (or maybe just study).

Until the vaccine becomes available, I hope that for my sake and others’, those living in communal environments practice healthier habits and take active steps to prevent the spread of swine flu. So, always cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, and if you must drink from the red cup, wash your hands after!

College students, will you be getting vaccinated? Do you think this vaccine should be required for all those living in communal environments?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 18th, 2009
06:00 AM ET

Marine veteran fights an invisible battle

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Matthew Brown, 24, was shot in the leg in Falluja, Iraq.

Since the day a sniper shot Matthew Brown, 24, in the leg in Falluja, Iraq, life has never been the same (watch video). It was Veterans Day 2004, and Brown was trying to locate the shooter who was targeting one of his fellow Marines. But the sniper found Brown first.

"Nothing can describe it. You're taking a small projectile moving roughly 2,800 feet per second and stopping it on a dime, so there's searing heat, shooting pain, just pain everywhere," Brown says.

A priest gave him his last rites before he was airlifted out of Falluja. "They weren't really sure where I was shot because there was blood everywhere," he says.

Many blood transfusions and surgeries later, Brown awoke from a medically induced coma. This time, he was in Maryland.

"It was very disorienting, very confusing," Brown remembers. "I couldn't understand why I couldn't move my leg. I kept reaching for my sidearm."

He still had both legs and feet but had suffered extensive nerve damage. At 20 years old, Brown had to learn how to walk again. But there was more to his injury than his new physical limitations. One of every five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan has post-traumatic stress disorder. Matthew Brown is one of them.

"Cars backfiring make me very jumpy,” he says. “People behind me, loud noises, constantly on alert looking around – is that McDonald's bag on the side of the road a bomb or just a bag? Is someone trying to get me?”

What started out as a prescription to take one to two painkillers every six hours eventually spiraled in to something more serious. Brown began abusing his medications. "Oxycontin, methadone, Percocet, Vicodin, once in a while Valium, " he says. "There would be some times where I would crush up a methadone....snort that, then chew a Percocet, then swallow a Vicodin, just so they would all hit at different times and the high continued."

And on top of the drugs, he was drinking heavily. "I was just, indirectly, I guess just trying to end it. End the pain, for a brief moment or forever."

Brown says he doesn't remember much from that time but he knows the exact moment when he hit rock bottom. Shortly after that night, he says he was able to speak up and for the first time, ask for help to deal with his PTSD.

"It took a while...to man up and get the help, " he says. "It was terrifying, knowing that I was going to go meet a complete stranger and spill my heart. I don't think I've ever told anyone everything before."

"Right now, the VA [Veterans Administration] is reporting over 50,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have some sort of substance abuse or alcohol issue," says Tom Tarantino, with the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America or IAVA. "Keep in mind, only 44 percent of current or former veterans even use the VA, so the actual number is far, far bigger."

Brown says communicating with fellow veterans is what best helped him manage his PTSD. "Really the only people who understand PTSD are the ones who have it," says Brown. Tarantino agrees. "No one can talk to a vet like another vet. No one can understand what someone's going through, what a combat vet is going through, other than someone who has also seen combat."

That's why the IAVA has created a social networking site specifically for combat veterans to share their experiences in dealing with PTSD. Community of Vets is a site where veterans can ask one another questions about dealing with family life, job stress, alcohol or drug abuse, and treatment options.

Tarantino believes that kind of open communication is crucial for someone with PTSD. "These are wounds. You're actually a stronger service member, you're a stronger soldier if you say, ‘Hey I'm having a problem. I need help. Let's get me fixed so I can get back into the fight," he says. "We do an excellent job of training people how to be warriors. We don't do a very good job in the military and as a society of bringing them back from warriors to citizens."

Brown believes he has benefited from talking with other veterans through the IAVA site. His darkest days seem to be behind him and the future looks bright. He's married and has two children, a boy and a girl.

"Life is still a battle with PTSD," he says. "I now realize that I don't want to be a number on a piece of paper, I want to live to be 70 or 80 – I want to grow up to see my son graduate from boot camp or high school or college....Same with my daughter."

"Now I'm trying to live up to what the people that died could have been. Where they would want to be."

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 17th, 2009
04:47 PM ET

Many baby-oriented ads depict unsafe sleep environments

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical News Managing Editor

Expectant parents have a lot to think about as the birth of their child approaches. Parenting classes can provide tips on a variety of topics including breathing techniques to help get through labor, breastfeeding and how to place your baby in the bassinet or crib to avoid sudden infant death syndrome. SIDS is the leading cause of death among babies age 1 month to 1 year. According to the National Institutes of Health, most of these unexplained deaths occur between the ages of 2 and 4 months.

The exact cause is not known, but experts believe that the how a baby sleeps can play a big role in preventing a baby from dying. Having the baby sleep on his or her back is the No. 1 recommendation. Keeping the baby's bed free of anything that might suffocate him or her is also very important, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics has the following guideline:

"Keep soft objects and loose bedding out of the crib: Soft objects such as pillows, quilts, comforters, sheepskins, stuffed toys, and other soft objects should be kept out of an infant's sleeping environment." The group also says that if bumper pads are used, they should be “thin, firm, well secured, and not pillow-like.” Further, the academy says, “loose bedding such as blankets and sheets may be hazardous."

Now a new study finds that would-be parents are getting a mixed message, at least from some ads and photos in popular magazines. According to this study, researchers looked at nearly 400 pictures in 28 popular magazines. Among photos that were used in advertising and articles, researchers found only 36 pictures depicting children in a safe sleeping position.

Most of the images pictured infant sleep environments that did not reflect AAP guidelines to prevent SIDS.

It reminded me of some of the images I saw surfing the Web as I was looking to outfit my baby’s nursery and put things on my registry for my shower.

I saw bedding sets with thick bumpers and blankets, which was confusing to me because I thought the only thing that's supposed to be in my baby's bed is the firm mattress, a sheet and him. My confusion seems to mirror what the researchers of this new study found. They found that "messages in the media are inconsistent with health care messages, create confusion and misinformation...and may lead inadvertently to unsafe practices."

Have you seen images of babies wrapped in blankets and/or placed in super-soft bedding? Would images like this influence how you put your baby to sleep?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 14th, 2009
10:21 AM ET

Will health reform cover illegal immigrants?

By John Bonifield
CNN Medical News Producer

It's a loaded issue - will health reform include coverage for illegal immigrants? President Obama has said no, with a possible exception for children, and the plans being drafted by Congress bar illegal immigrants. However, opponents say that the House bill leaves loopholes that may allow undocumented residents to benefit.

"There's no system for verification," said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group that aims to reduce immigration.

"On the one hand, they have language in there that says illegal aliens are not going to be eligible, but at the same time they're getting a lot of heat from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, from the Hispanic leadership groups, that say we want everybody covered including illegal aliens," Mehlman said. "They're trying to have it both ways here. They're saying to the public, 'Don't worry. Illegal aliens aren't being covered,' and they're turning around to these special interests and saying, 'Well, don't worry. There really is no system to prevent them.'"

In July, Democrats voted down an amendment to the House bill that would have required mechanisms to verify citizenship. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which advocates on behalf of Latinos, said in a statement to CNN that health reform should include legal immigrants who have followed the rules.

"The issue of undocumented immigrants is a separate one that is too often used to confuse the health-care debate. When it comes to undocumented immigrants, the caucus' priority is seeing comprehensive immigration reform enacted," said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

That's something Obama has said he'd like to see as well - immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship - and legal access to the health plan.

It's estimated that illegal immigrants and their children make up about 17 percent of uninsured people in the U.S., according to recent data by the Pew Hispanic Center. Long-term estimates by the Congressional Budget Office predict that 17 million people will remain uninsured under the reforms of the House bill. Nearly half of them are projected to be illegal immigrants.

Tell us what you think. Should health reform include coverage for illegal immigrants?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 12th, 2009
10:49 AM ET

Ivy League women get offers for their eggs

By Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam
CNN Medical Intern

One night, during one of my late study sessions at Harvard, my two best friends were kidding about donating their eggs to raise money for a student organization. Over the years we have seen a number of ads on Facebook and in our school paper seeking students’ eggs in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars. Economically speaking, when times are hard, Harvard women can rely on an ovarian stimulus plan.

“Oh, the investment bank fell through? That’s okay; I’ll just donate a few eggs,” one of them joked. “Fantastic! We can use your unborn children as our platinum sponsors,” the other replied.

While they weren’t being serious, there are people out there willing pay for an educated woman’s eggs, and when lofty compensation is involved some students are eager to donate. In the decade of the “designer baby,” it seems fairly obvious why prospective parents prioritize intelligence on their genetic shopping lists. Depending on specific fertility needs, aspiring parents seek out smart genes through both egg and sperm donation. Men are not compensated nearly as much as much as women because sperm donation is relatively quick and simple. In fact, men get only about $50, but some lucky ones, with Ph.D.s and graduate degrees, can get up to $100. For women, the egg donation process requires a number of medical exams, weeks of hormone treatments and a surgical procedure for retrieval of oocytes, or eggs. The entire process takes a total of 60 hours and carries a number of risks, such as ovarian hyperstimulation, bruising or hemorrhaging, and even the risk of infertility.

Despite lucrative offers for eggs in college newspapers, compensation for egg donation should reflect the inconvenience and discomforts associated with the procedure, and not personal characteristics, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The ASRM’s Ethics Committee Report, published in 2007, states that “Total payments to donors in excess of $5,000 require justification and sums above $10,000 are not appropriate”. According to a survey of Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology participating egg donation programs, the national average for compensation was $4,200.

A number of egg donor agencies across the country have signed agreements, promising to follow the ethical guidelines outlined by the ASRM. There are several, however, that have not. These agencies and prospective oocyte recipients often place private advertisements in college newspapers offering compensation far beyond the ASRM’s recommendations. In 1999, a California based company, A Perfect Match, placed a $50,000 advertisement in The Crimson, Harvard’s College newspaper. In 2007 Elite Donors ran a $100,000 advertisement in the Crimson as well, according to the paper’s staff.  More recently, similar agencies have taken advantage of Facebook advertising, which allows solicitors to target females attending specific colleges. Only those who meet specific profile criteria are “eligible” to see the ad. Imagine being targeted as a suitable candidate while taking the “What animal is your Patronus quiz” on Facebook — ironic, right?

As a Harvard undergrad “eligible” to see these sorts of advertisements, I do have a few concerns. First, large payments are quite seductive and could cause a potential egg donor to discount risks to her health. Financial inducement may cause potential donors to disregard the emotional and psychological effects of having a child somewhere out there. Secondly, ASRM guidelines function to eliminate the purchase and sale of biological products. Payments are strictly meant to compensate for the medical inconveniences of an altruistic act. Because I attend a certain school, is my genetic material really worth more than yours? Is it really altruism if I can “make it rain” after donating eggs?

Most people want smart babies, but intelligence is not simply inherited from one’s biological mother. Yes some people are born with inherent talents, but most experts agree that we are all products of nature and nurture. Ivy parents don’t always have Ivy babies and vice versa. Therefore, I encourage prospective parents willing to pay such high prices not to be too disappointed if little Sally or John doesn’t turn out to be the brightest crayon in the box. (No refunds, returns, or credit!) Neither of my parents went to Harvard, but they did teach me how to read and the importance of hard work…for free.

If this Harvard gig doesn’t work out for me, at least I have about 300,000 nest eggs to fall back on.

What do you think – is it right to offer women with certain characteristics so much money for their eggs? Where do you draw the line between positively selecting for these characteristics, and eugenics? Do you think the financial compensation of oocyte donors should be regulated?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 10th, 2009
03:15 PM ET

Obesity, smoking add immense burdens to health care costs

By David S. Martin
CNN Senior Medical Producer

An orthopedic surgeon told me the story recently about a 300-plus pound man whose feet gradually failed under his immense weight - until he walked on the inside of his ankles.

He required complicated surgery on each foot and ankle – 3 ½ hours in the OR, a night in the hospital and months of rehab each time. The bill ran into the tens of thousands of dollars for a problem largely attributable to his weight.

“Bones aren’t any bigger than they were thousands of years ago,” the surgeon told me. Unfortunately, we are. And bones and tendons don’t grow to accommodate body weight.

The debate about health care is largely about dollar figures. How much will it cost? How will it affect the deficit? How much will it raise our taxes?

There are a couple of figures that don’t often make the debate, and they may pose an even greater challenge. I’m talking about the obesity rate and the percentage of Americans who continue to smoke.

A government-sponsored study recently estimated that medical spending for obesity reached $147 billion in 2008, almost doubling in the past decade. It’s not surprising. About 32 percent of American adults are obese, a condition linked to diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. As the story above illustrates, obesity can also do a number on your bones and joints.

If you want an idea of how big $147 billion is, it’s roughly 6 percent of all health care spending in the United States.

How about smoking? Almost 21 percent of American adults are addicted to cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 45 million people. The estimated health care costs pegged to smoking: $96 billion.

It’s virtually impossible to live in the United States and not be aware of the health risks associated with smoking, yet the addictive habit continues – with tragic consequences for smokers and an immense burden on the health care system.

The Congressional Budget Office caused an uproar when it projected that Obama-backed changes in the health care would add $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

That’s nothing compared with the cost of obesity and cigarettes. Over 10 years, those costs top $2.4 trillion.

And that leads to the obvious question: How would you get Americans to lose weight and quit smoking?

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Filed under: Health & Politics • Smoking • Weight loss

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen 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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