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Health Capsules: July 19

Safe cycling is a nationwide issue, as well as a primary goal of several area groups.

Safe travel on two wheels

More bicyclists than ever are pedaling the roadways in pursuit of fun and fitness this summer. But as biking has risen in popularity, the number of related accidents also has gone up nationwide, particularly among male riders, according to a recent study. Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found that over the most recent 15-year period for which data is available, hospital admissions due to bike crashes increased by 120 percent in the U.S. Men accounted for three-fourths of those injuries. During the entire 15-year study period from 1997 to 2013, there were 3.8 million non-fatal adult bicycle injuries and close to 10,000 deaths reported nationwide.

According to data from the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, about 400,000 Missourians now consider themselves “avid” cyclists, meaning they ride at least once per week. And though the number of people killed or injured while riding a bike in Missouri has declined since 2010, safety remains a significant concern; in 2015, nine cyclists were killed and 513 more were injured statewide.

A number of area organizations offer safe cycling information and group riding opportunities. St. Louis Recreational Cyclists, an area bicycling group affiliated with the League of American Bicyclists, offers safety-focused group rides for those seeking moderate or more challenging courses. Its membership is open to all riders who are willing to abide by the group’s safe riding practices. More information is available on its website, www.stlrc.org. The outdoor advocacy group Trailnet also provides a calendar listing of area cycling events and groups at www.trailnet.org. A complete list of bicycling rules and regulations in Missouri, as well as more information about bicycle routes statewide, is available online at www.mobikefed.org.

A new vaccine soon may become a major weapon in the fight against heroin addiction.

Vaccine against heroin addiction nears human testing

The first vaccine with the potential to block the “high” of heroin has passed a preclinical stage of testing in primates. The vaccine, developed at The Scripps Research Institute [TSRI], is the first of its kind against an opioid to successfully reach this phase. Researchers believe that vaccinating recovering heroin addicts against the drug’s often-deadly effects will help prevent them from relapsing back into drug use. In recent years, heroin use has become a worldwide problem, with its epicenter in the U.S.

The potential vaccine works by exposing the immune system to a part of the heroin molecule’s structure, teaching the body to produce antibodies against heroin’s psychoactive products. The antibodies then neutralize heroin molecules, blocking them from reaching the brain and causing the feeling of intense euphoria that addicts crave. In the primate tests, the vaccine’s effect was greatest in the first month after vaccination, but lasted for over eight months, with no negative side effects noted.

The vaccine has been in development for eight years at TSRI’s Janda Laboratory in California. Researchers there previously have tested vaccine candidates under laboratory conditions and in rodents, where the strategy also proved effective for neutralizing heroin. They now believe the vaccine candidate will be declared safe for human trials, because its components have either already been approved by the FDA or have passed safety tests in previous clinical trials. Their research was published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


A caution to swimmers

Swimmers enjoying the nation’s waterways this summer may want to take reasonable precautions to prevent contracting an extremely rare but deadly infection. Its cause is an amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri or N. fowleri, which has been called the “brain-eating amoeba” in news stories. This amoeba thrives in freshwater lakes and rivers, as well as in poorly maintained swimming pools.

A single-celled organism, N. fowleri causes primary amebic meningoencephalitis [PAM], which destroys brain tissue and causes swelling and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC].

“Humans are the accidental host – we are not part of this amoeba’s life cycle. But when it finds a nice warm environment like your nose, it looks for a food source,” said CDC Epidemiologist Jonathan Yoder.

The nose is the route of entry into the body for N. fowleri; drinking water contaminated with the organism cannot cause infection. Generally, this occurs when people jump or dive into warm water when the weather has been hot for a long period of time, which results in higher water temperatures and lower water levels. The amoeba then travels up the nose to the brain and spinal cord.

While infections with N. fowleri are indeed rare – only 143 known infections were reported in the U.S. between 1962 and 2016 – they occur mainly during the months of July, August and September. Most of these infections have been contracted in southern states, but they can also happen farther north. Only one infection to date has been reported in Missouri. However, once a person is infected, the fatality rate is over 97 percent; just four out of those 143 known infected individuals survived.

In its early stages, N. fowleri infection may be similar to bacterial meningitis. Initial symptoms of PAM start one to 14 days after infection, and include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting and stiff neck. After the start of symptoms, the disease progresses rapidly and usually causes death within three to seven days.

The few survivors of PAM were all treated with powerful drugs soon after infection, but most victims don’t start treatment in time. Rapid tests for N. fowleri do exist, but because the infection is so rarely seen, doctors usually don’t suspect it until it’s too late. If they have been in warm freshwater within the previous two weeks, people should seek emergency medical care immediately if they develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck and/or vomiting. Health officials recommend that swimmers hold their noses or wear nose clips when jumping feet-first into freshwater lakes and rivers. Avoiding extremely warm or low-level waters also may be protective.

Interacting with preschoolers while reading aloud to them may “turbocharge” their literacy skills.

Engaging kids when reading activates the brain 

Reading to preschoolers has many benefits, but simply speaking the words aloud to them may not be enough to improve their cognitive development. However, keeping them actively engaged and participating while reading to them may give their brains a significant cognitive boost, according to new research.

The study, led by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, involved taking functional MRI brain scans of 4-year-olds during a mother-child reading observation and a story listening task. Children who were more highly engaged showed significantly greater brain activation in right-sided cerebellar areas of their brains, which are thought to support cognitive skill acquisition, language development and executive functioning. Their results show the value of “dialogic reading,” where the child is encouraged to actively participate, the researchers concluded.

“The takeaway for parents in this study is that they should engage more when reading with their child, ask questions, have them turn the page and interact with each other,” said Dr. John Hutton, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal PLoS ONE. “In turn, this could fuel brain activation or ‘turbocharge’ the development of literacy skills, particularly comprehension, in preschool-aged children.”


Tests of potential sleep apnea drug show promise

For the estimated 22 million Americans who suffer from chronic obstructive sleep apnea, snoring is far more than just an annoyance. As an apnea sufferer sleeps, his or her airway collapses or becomes blocked, causing breathing pauses – sometimes 30 or more every hour – which can last from a few seconds to minutes. Then normal breathing starts again, often with a loud snorting or choking sound, which is the only outward sign of the condition. Sleep apnea has been found to pose significant health risks, including greater chances for coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. As many as 80 percent of cases of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea currently go undiagnosed.

Scientists have attempted to identify drugs to treat sleep apnea for nearly 35 years, without success. But a new study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University researchers has found that an older pharmaceutical product called dronabinol may help. Dronabinol was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more than 25 years ago to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients. For this study, adult patients were divided into three groups: One group was given a low dose of the drug, a second group received a higher dose and the third group received a placebo. Participants received the drug once daily before bed for six weeks.

Compared to a placebo, six weeks of treatment with the highest studied dose of dronabinol, 10 milligrams, was associated with a significantly lower frequency of apneas during sleep, less daytime sleepiness and greater overall treatment satisfaction, according to lead researcher David Carley, Ph.D. Carley and his colleagues presented the study results at SLEEP 2017, a worldwide forum on developments in sleep medicine, in early June. The drug soon will move on to expanded clinical trials.


On the calendar

CommunityStrong, a BJC-funded wellness initiative for St. Charles County residents, presents Wellness on the Go: Apps for Healthy Living from 7-8 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 14 at the Middendorf-Kredell Library Branch, 2750 Hwy. K in O’Fallon. Attendance is free, but registration is requested by calling (636) 928-9355. For more information, visit www.CommunityStrongSCC.org.

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Free health screenings are available from 7-9 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 18 at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, 10 Hospital Drive in St. Peters, in Medical Office Building 1. Screening tests include lung function and blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose panels, body composition analysis and body mass index [BMI] calculation. A 10-hour fast is required. Pre-register by visiting www.bjcstcharlescounty.org or calling (636) 928-9355.

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