Health Highlights: May 16, 2014

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Ban Handshakes in Health Care Settings: Experts

Patient handshakes with doctors, nurses and dentists should be banned in order to reduce the risk of infections, experts say.

Instead of handshakes, health care professionals and patients should use alternatives such as a hand wave, a bow or a hands-together Namaste, according to an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

They also said that hospitals and other health care facilities should post signs saying they are "handshake free zones," NBC News reported.

The editorial is calling for a handshake ban because rates of hand washing among both patients and health care providers are too low, despite ongoing public education efforts about the importance of hand hygiene.

For example, rates of hand washing among doctors, nurses and health care volunteers are around 40 percent, according to NBC News.

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Action Urged on VA Health Care Problems

Frustration is mounting about the lack of action over allegations of problems at Veterans Affairs medical facilities that may have led to the deaths of an unknown number of veterans while they waited for care.

There have been reports of falsified patient appointment documentation and treatment delays at Veterans Affairs health centers. In one case, sources at the Phoenix VA hospital claim that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the facility, the Associated Press reported.

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars are outraged and frustrated because nearly a month after the allegations about problems at VA medical facilities became public "we still do not know who the veterans are who may have died waiting for care," Ryan Gallucci, the group's deputy director for national legislative service, said at a hearing Thursday of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

"If the system is failing, it is their duty to fix it," Gallucci said of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his staff, the AP reported.

The VA, which serves about 9 million veterans a year, operates the largest single health care system in the nation.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., noted that reports of problems at VA health centers date back at least 14 years, and that each account of problems has been followed by promises of action, the AP reported.

"We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions," Murray told Shinseki at the hearing. "What we need from you now is decisive action to restore veterans' confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability and change these system-wide, yearslong problems."

The VA is "suffering from an absence of public leadership and is foundering as a result," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said at the hearing.

The government has "has failed to respond in an effective manner" to concerns raised about VA facilities, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. "This has created in our veterans community a crisis of confidence toward the VA."

Shinseki, who has led the VA since 2009, has pledged to release a preliminary report within 3 weeks, and another report from the VA's inspector general is due in August, the AP reported.

In addition, deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors was selected by President Barack Obama to review VA health care policies and procedures.

At Thursday's hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Shinseki it was time to call in the FBI, "given that the (inspector general's) resources are so limited, that the task is so challenging and the need for results is so powerful."

If the VA director does not ask for the FBI's help, Blumenthal said he "will almost certainly make the request on my own" to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey, the AP reported.

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Measles Virus Put Woman's Cancer into Remission: Study

A highly concentrated dose of measles virus has put a woman's incurable cancer into remission, according to researchers.

Stacy Erholtz, 49, had undergone numerous rounds of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants to treat the blood cancer multiple myeloma, but she suffered relapses every time, CNN reported.

Mayo Clinic scientists gave Erholtz and five other multiple myeloma patients a highly-concentrated dose of lab-engineered measles virus. Erholtz was cancer-free for nine months after receiving the measles virus.

None of the other patients in the study went into remission, and doctors recently used radiation therapy to treat a small tumor in Erholtz's body, CNN reported.

"The idea here is that a virus can be trained to specifically damage a cancer and to leave other tissues in the body unharmed," study author lead author Dr. Stephen Russell said.

The researchers noted that thousands of other cancer patients have been treated with viruses, but this is the first time that remission has occurred in a patient with cancer throughout the body, CNN reported.

"I think we succeeded because we pushed the dose higher than others have pushed it," Russell said. "And I think that is critical. The amount of virus that's in the bloodstream really is the driver of how much gets into the tumors."

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Life Expectancy Rises Worldwide: WHO

People worldwide are living longer than ever before and there have been significant gains in some poor nations, according to a World Health Organization report.

The agency said the average girl and boy born in 2012 can expect to live to ages 73 and 69, respectively, which is six years longer than people born in 1990, USA Today reported.

In the United States, life expectancy is now 81 for women and 76 for men. But the U.S. ranks 37th overall and is not in the top 10 for either gender. The longest life expectancies are for women in Japan (87) and for men in Iceland (81.2).

The WHO said a number of countries have seen double-digit rises in life expectancy since 1990, including Liberia (from 42 to 62), Ethiopia (from 45 to 64), Maldives (58 to 77), Cambodia (54 to 72), Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) (50 to 66) and Rwanda (48 to 65), USA Today reported.

Published
Friday, May 16, 2014