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Headlines: May 5, 2011

by Meg Larkin


            In public health news, a new study has been released that questions the value of a low-sodium diet.  The study, published in the May 4th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that low salt diets may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke and do not decrease the risk for high blood pressure.  The study has been strongly criticized by the CDC, which suggested that the study’s methodology was deeply flawed.  In particular, the CDC questioned the selection of participants, the method of measuring sodium intake, and the use of self-reporting to evaluate sodium consumption.  The study is contrary to a number of earlier studies, which linked increased sodium consumption with higher heart risk.  To complicate matters, a randomized, controlled trial measuring the health effects of sodium intake would be incredibly difficult to undertake because of problems associated with keeping study participants on a low-sodium diet for a number of years.  Therefore, some experts assert that it is unwise to defer public health measures aimed at decreasing sodium intake until a more rigorous study can be conducted.

            In other public health news, the CDC has reported that Asthma rates have risen sharply in the U.S.  The study found that between 2001 and 2009 the prevalence of asthma increased across all demographic groups.  The New York Times reported that, “he overall prevalence of asthma increased to 8.2 percent in 2009, when 24.6 million cases were diagnosed, from 7.3 percent in 2001, when 20.1 million cases were diagnosed — a 12.3 percent increase.”  While the CDC has emphasized that steps can be taken to help people effectively manage their asthma, they were unable to point to a cause for the increase.  Researchers are currently looking in to factors that could have caused the increase in cases, including exposure to pesticides and car exhaust, but they have emphasized that it is not easy to identify a singular factor that has caused the increase.  Asthma is most prevalent among African Americans, women and children.  The report found that 1 in 10 children and 1 in 12 Americans suffer from asthma.

            On the international side of the public health field, researchers and aid groups are increasingly concerned about a resurgence of cholera in Haiti.  Workers in Haiti have seen an increase in new cholera patients with the start of the spring rainy season.  The rains help to spread the contaminated water, which is the source of the disease.  According to the New York Times, “Partners in Health have noted an increase in new patients at treatment centers in the countryside, as well as in Port-au-Prince, the capital.”  Another aid group, Doctors Without Borders, has said it has seen a slight increase in cases in the countryside.

            In wellness news, a new study has reaffirmed the cognitive benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.  A new study published this week in the journal Sleep found that people who regularly get too much or too little sleep have cognitive function that is the same as someone three to seven years older.  The Boston Globe reported that, “European researchers tracked the sleep of more than 5,000 middle-aged folks for five years and found that those who shifted away from regularly sleeping seven to eight hours a night -- to either less sleep or more -- had a faster decline in memory, reasoning skills, and vocabulary than those who maintained good sleep habits.”  The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging, and while it found a link between sleep and cognitive performance, it did not prove a causal relationship between the two.  Therefore, it remains to be seen whether sleep is associated with other factors that contribute to cognitive decline, or whether failure to get enough quality sleep contributes to loss of mental function.

            Finally, in legal news, a settlement has been reached between the Department of Justice and a German drug maker over the illegal marketing of an MS drug.  The Wall St. Journal reported that,” Multinational drugmaker Merck Serono SA has agreed to pay $44.3 million to settle allegations that it illegally promoted one of its drugs using kickbacks to doctors.”  The Justice Department alleged that the company illegally paid doctors for prescribing its drug, Rebif, between 2002 and 2009.  Justice said that the payments amounted to kickbacks and resulted in “false claims” to Medicare and Medicaid.  The settlement will result in an extension of the Merck Serono’s existing Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Federal Government, and the agreement will include more accountability requirements for company executives and board members.


Meg Larkin is a third year law student at Boston University.  Please feel free to email her with any questions, comments, suggestions or concerns.


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