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May 16th, 2008
11:10 AM ET

Making medical "me time"

By Val Willingham
Medical Producer

I have never been one for running out and getting medical tests.  Even though I work in the CNN medical unit and report on the importance of preventive medicine, I always seemed to lag behind on mammograms, physicals and exams.  So when I got my first colonoscopy a few months ago, even I was surprised that I took the time to do it.

When I was younger I saw my doctor once a year but as I got older and became a mom, I sort of put myself on the back burner.  My daughter's health, my husband's health, even my dog's health were more important.  I used to squeeze in my own medical appointments between work, tennis practice, play rehearsals and driving lessons. The only time I saw a doctor was in the emergency room for minor cuts and scrapes.   So after my daughter went off to college, I began to reevaluate my health and realized I needed to get back on track.   I scheduled a mammogram, a physical, dental and eye exams and the colonoscopy.   As I ticked off my medical "to-do list" it felt good to know I was taking better care of myself. 

Doctors say many busy women put off important tests because they just don't have time.  They seem to focus on other things or other people instead of themselves.  And that's not good, because in order to stay healthy women should be getting certain tests every year. (Watch Video)

Beginning in our 30s or younger, women should know their numbers, their cholesterol, their blood pressure and how much they weigh.  The American Heart Associations says heart disease is the Number 1 killer of women.  Physicians say the focus on heart health should begin at a young age.  That means exercise and eating a healthy diet that's low in sodium and fat and high in Omega 3 fatty acids.  And be sure to load it up on fruits and veggies.

Regular breast exams, pelvic exams and pap smears also are important, and some women may want to consider adding more calcium to their diets for strong bones.

In our 40s, women are generally encouraged to begin getting regular mammograms. Although there's been some controversy on this topic, the American Cancer Society says mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early. The earlier it's found the better chance of survival.

In our 50s, women should get colonoscopies for detection of colon cancer... and we must keep up with regular checkups.

So if you are one of those women like me who's been putting off important diagnostic tests, don't wait any longer.  Give yourself a little medical "me" time and get back on a healthy track to life.

Do you get regular exams to stay healthy?   How difficult is it for you to keep up with medical appointments?   Tell us about it.

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.


May 13th, 2008
10:48 AM ET

Vaccines and autism

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

Last week, I sat down with Dr. Bernadine Healy at CNN's Women's Health Summit in New York City. She is a remarkable person who has been the "first" at many things, including the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health. We talked about many things, including the persistent brain fog patients and their doctors have when it comes to heart disease and women. Everyone should know that heart disease is the biggest killer of women; in fact heart disease kills ten times as many women as breast cancer.

What I wanted to blog about today, though, is her response to a question I asked about autism. She had written a column about the topic in U.S. News and World Report and told me she believes the link between vaccines and autism is "biologically plausible." Of course, that spurred several more questions from me (click here to watch). Healy went on to say that many in the scientific world have been quick to dismiss the concerns of parents and have not conducted the necessary studies of causation to definitively rule out a vaccine/autism link.  Healy's comments have become a lightning rod in the medical community – with an infectious disease expert with the American Academy of Pediatrics calling CNN twice yesterday to express concern parents will misconstrue Healy's comments and stop get their kids vaccinated – and that vaccines save lives.

Wow. We had to take a moment at the summit, where I reminded the doctor that her comments seemed to fly in the face of most of her former colleagues at the NIH, and the CDC, FDA, and AAP for that matter. She is sticking to her guns, as is the neurologist father of Hannah Poling, who believes when the vaccine court awarded his daughter Hannah compensation, it was a milestone in this debate. Neither are anti-vaccine, and both are arguably legitimate scientists.

I have said over and over again that I was going to keep digging into this issue. What is happening here? For the record, I have had both my girls vaccinated on schedule, but I am curious – what do comments like Healy's say to parents and scientists?

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.


May 12th, 2008
12:30 PM ET

Trying to get to Myanmar

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN Senior Producer

Since last Monday, the Gupta team has been pushing hard to get into Myanmar. All the bags are packed and ready to go. Flashlights and headlamps – check. Water purification tablets – check. Malarone (an anti-malaria drug) and other meds – check. Camera batteries charged and ready to go – check. We’re on the balls of our feet, ready to spring forward, but we wait because the Myanmar government won't give us visas. As you probably know, we're not the only ones waiting.

ALT TEXT

I’ve talked to dozens of people from organizations including UNICEF, World Vision, USAID, Doctors without Borders and the International Crisis Group. For all, this humanitarian crisis has been unique. So far, about half a million people have been reached with some sort of aid – whether that's a bag of rice or a sanitation kit. But more than 2 million people have been affected and are in need of assistance according to Joe Lowry of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Part of the problem is that the country has allowed only a trickle of humanitarian aid experts into the country. In some cases, they have allowed deliveries of goods but not the personnel normally sent to help distribute them effectively. One expert put it this way: "It’s like dropping a off a bunch of instruments and somehow expecting a symphony to be played without any training or organization."

Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since the 1980s. Its leadership is not fully recognized by many nations including the United States government. In case you’ve been wondering, that's why some people, including the U.S. government, refer to the country as Burma – its official name before the military junta rule.

Now, it's been more than a week since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar (by the way, these powerful tropical storms are called hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere and cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere). The few humanitarian experts on the ground say the situation is worsening by the day. We've heard preliminary reports of outbreaks of diarrheal disease, cholera and malaria. Without a doubt, it's a humanitarian crisis that’s hard to imagine in scope and scale, especially given the limited reporting from the country. So far, the United Nations estimates the death toll from Cyclone Nargis ranges from 63,000 to 100,000 with tens of thousands of people still missing. That’s staggering – especially compared with two other tragic disasters we've covered: the 2004 tsunami left 181,000 dead and Hurricane Katrina killed 1,836 in 2005. Even as a journalist who has seen these catastrophes – it's hard to wrap my head around such large numbers of people killed, affected or injured.

Crisis experts say the timeline for outbreaks is generally 10 days after a disaster. Tomorrow will be the tenth day. The Red Cross points out there is standing water everywhere and no sanitation to speak of – it's a combination that will lead to inevitable disease.

We're still working hard to get into the country. Have you been following news coverage on Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis? If and when we do report from Myanmar, what are you interested in seeing?

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.

May 9th, 2008
01:37 PM ET

Allergies and age

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

When I was a little girl, my mother would get allergy shots. It was a big deal, because in my childlike mind, I could never understand why anyone would use a needle to get relief. But she was one of those people who was allergic to everything: pollen, ragweed, mold. She was miserable all year long. The shots helped her make it through the day. But as she got older, her allergies changed. She gave up the inoculations, took some over the counter medication and eventually weaned herself off the meds. The allergens just didn't seem to bother her anymore.

Fast forward 30 years. My mom is now 83 and guess what? Her allergies are back. They're not as bad as when she was in her thirties, but they effect her enough to alter her life. She avoids going out on high pollen days and keeps her windows closed; leaving the air conditioning on. She sneezes a lot and feels rundown from time to time. But she says they are still not as bad as when she was younger.

Doctors say the return of allergies as we get older is not unusual. Some people can have allergic reactions when they're young and then never have them again when they hit middle age. Some sufferers are like my mother, who go for years without symptoms and then, wham -they come back. Or others can go their whole lives without allergies and then in their forties and fifties start to sneeze and wheeze.

Allergists say there are a number of factors that cause this. Dr. Jordan Josephson, an otolaryngologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City says, "Allergens are getting worse and worse. There are things called super antigens, which means that all the car exhaust and pollution that can link up with maybe mold and creating super antigens that people are more allergic to." Dr. Josephson even mentions that global warming may play a part. As the climate of our planet shifts and our weather patterns change, allergen strains tend to become more potent.

Physicians also warn that as you age, allergies can become more of a health problem. Watch out if you are grabbing an over the counter medication for relief. If you're taking prescription medicine for blood pressure or cholesterol, the OTC medication could cause some negative reactions. Dr. Josephson warns, "If you have heart problems any decongestants can adversely affect those heart problems. You have to be very, very careful and if you are a man and you are having a prostate problem, as men get older they tend to have that, antihistamines and decongestants can cause your prostate to act up and swell and can give you terrible urinary problems." Stay in touch with your doctor and make sure you're getting your allergies treated properly.

Are you an allergy sufferer? How have your allergies changed your life and what do you do to fight them? Let us know.

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. 

May 7th, 2008
04:24 PM ET

ER capacity and terrorism

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

How crowded is your neighborhood emergency room and could it handle the aftermath of a terrorist act? That's been the topic of two hearings on Capitol Hill this week. On Monday we learned that lawmakers had surveyed hospitals in seven cities (New York; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Houston, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Minneapolis, Minnesota) to see whether their emergency departments would be able to handle the flood of injures after a conventional terrorist attack, such as the subway bombing in Madrid, Spain, four years ago, which killed almost 200 people and injured more than 2,000.

Of the 34 hospitals surveyed on March 25 (a randomly chosen date, according to the House Committee), more than half of the hospitals said their ERs were already above capacity and only five had available beds in their intensive care units. Washington and LA hospitals were in particularly bad shape in terms of capacity.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, commissioned the survey and held these hearings because new Medicaid regulations are taking effect as early as May 26, which will cut tens of billions of federal dollars to public and teaching hospitals nationwide.

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were grilled by the same committee.

Asked if they thought the nations' level 1 trauma hospitals had the capacity to deal with such a terrorist attack, Chertoff said he did, and Leavitt said repeatedly that even though some hospitals were not able to handle a terrorist threat, Medicaid dollars are not the solution. "The job of Medicaid is to take care of people who are poor, or indigent, or disabled," not institutions or hospitals, as Leavitt told the committee many times.

One ER physician I spoke with said he was "dumbfounded" when he listened to today’s testimony. Dr. Art Kellerman, a long-time emergency room physician at Grady Hospital in Atlanta and Dean for Health Policy at Emory University continued, "This is mind-boggling. It's deeply disturbing that the two cabinet secretaries most responsible simply are not going to take responsibility for the current crisis in our Emergency Departments."

For the American College of Emergency Physicians, overcrowded emergency rooms have been a concern for quite some time. "This is an EXTREME crisis, not just for surge capacity (in the event of a terrorist attack), but day-to-day capacity," the group's president, Dr. Linda Lawrence, told CNN following Monday's hearing.

A few years ago, my husband sliced his hand in the kitchen. Fortunately, I knew of a smaller hospital nearby. Its ER wasn't too crowded and he got in pretty quickly. I couldn't do that today. That hospital is closed. Today I would have to go to a different hospital with the potential of an overcrowded emergency room and a long wait.

Have you been to an emergency room recently? Did you have to wait a long time?  Are you concerned about emergency departments in hospitals in the city where you live being able to handle ordinary patient care, let alone coping with the disaster following a terrorist attack?

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.


May 5th, 2008
10:43 AM ET

Dishing on folic acid

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

I am getting married in October.  Since my fiancé and I got engaged, most of our free time has been spent planning the wedding, selling our individual homes and looking for a new home to buy together. Getting married in your 30s seems much more complicated than getting married in your 20s. There are lots of balls to juggle.  Just when I think I'm getting into a rhythm, something else comes up.

Take what happened a few weeks ago.

My future in-laws were over helping us get my fiancé's house ready to put on the market.
My future mother-in-law and I were in the kitchen organizing the cabinets.

"Now I know it's none of my business," she said as she deftly sorted orphan silverware and mismatched mugs, "but if you are thinking about starting a family in the next year, you need to start taking folic acid."

I haven’t even found a wedding dress. Now I have to start planning for a baby?

Turns out, my betrothed's very wise mother is right. Doctors have known for years that women who take folic acid before they get pregnant cut down the risk of serious birth defects such as spina bifida. Now new research suggests women who take folic acid supplements for a least a year before they become pregnant can slash their risk of having a premature baby by half. That, in turn, can lower the risk of things like cerebral palsy, physical disabilities like blindness and mental retardation.

Intrigued and new to the world of all things prenatal, I called Dr. Radek Bukowski at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He's the doctor leading this research. "Folic acid has a lot of powerful effects," Dr. Bukowski says, but "nobody really knows why folic acid works." One of the leading theories, says Dr. Bukowski, is that if it is taken before conception and during the first few months afterwards "maybe it protects against infection."

Dr. Bukowski also told me the average woman, with no history of having children with birth defects, can get enough folic acid in a multivitamin. It seems like a simple step all women can take to increase the odds of having a health baby. Moms out there – what other things would you suggest? And what do you wish other moms had told you before you got pregnant?

As for me, I have some more research to do. Wonder if folic acid can help me lose 10 pounds in time for my wedding?

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.


May 2nd, 2008
01:05 PM ET

A place to play

By Matt Sloane
CNN Medical Producer

I had one of the most rewarding experiences of my CNN career Wednesday, and it involved 40 children, about as many parents and some homemade jambalaya at a senior center in Louisiana.

ALT TEXT

"It starts with a playground" is the slogan for KaBOOM, a national non-profit organization that builds playgrounds. KaBOOM is our newest partner in the fight against childhood obesity. For those 40 kids, and even the parents in the room, it really does all start with a playground.

These children have been through more than most their age. Many of them are old enough to remember Hurricane Katrina just three years ago; and if they can't remember, the 5-foot-high water line on the trees at their local park still serves as an indicator of the storm's wrath. Wally Pontiff Jr. Park, known as Metairie Park before the storm, sat under 5 feet of water for close to two weeks. It sits just a few miles from Lake Ponchartrain, and a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River, putting it squarely in the flood zone.

ALT TEXT

That's where CNN Fit Nation comes in. For us, it started with a phone call to KaBOOM, and six months later I found myself sitting at this senior center, watching the kids draw their dream playground with crayons. From those drawings, the parents and I sat with KaBOOM staffers and picked the playground equipment that best fit the kids' drawings. Two months from now on June 28, we'll all meet in Metairie to build it, in a shade under 6 hours.

As the parents and adults thanked me for CNN's contribution to their community, I asked all of them for something in return – to use this new playground and to get their children moving and to teach them how to stay healthy well into adulthood.

Whether you're talking about keeping these kids healthy, revitalizing damage left in the wake of a tragic storm or the beginning of a great partnership with a non-profit organization – it really can all start with a playground.

KaBOOM's mission is to build a playspace within walking distance of every child in America. Do you want to help? Get information at www.KaBOOM.org, or check out www.CNN.com/Fitnation.

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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About this blog

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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