TIME Research

Why You’re Less Likely to Die in a Car Than Ever Before

Traffic
Heavy automobile traffic on the Harbor Freeway is viewed at sunset on Jan. 27, 2012 in Los Angeles. George Rose—Getty Images

'Motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past'

The chances of dying in a car crash in a new vehicle have declined dramatically in recent years to their lowest point ever, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Improvements to vehicle safety technology since the mid-1980s saved 7,700 lives in the United States in 2012 alone, the study found.

“There’s all the bad news about recalls, which make it sound like vehicles are getting less safe,” says IIHS president Adrian Lund. “What these results show is that motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past. This is a huge reduction of people dying as occupants of motor vehicles in crashes.”

The study, which looked at data on deaths in 2011 model year vehicles, found that no one died in nine vehicle models. The death rate per million registered vehicle years, a number that represents how many people died per the number of years a car is registered to be on the road, declined to 28 for 2011 model cars. That rate was 87 for cars made a decade earlier, Lund says.

The report attributed much of that improvement to changes in technology. Electronic stability control, for instance, has been incorporated into many vehicles and prevented deaths when vehicles roll over. The effect of the technology has been particularly noticeable in SUVs. Once among the most dangerous cars on the road, many SUVs are now among the safest vehicles. Six of the nine vehicles without a death were SUVs.

Lund says he anticipates that car safety will improve along with the introduction of new technology in the near future, but he also acknowledges that movements by governments and regulators to cut down on traffic deaths have the potential to reduce traffic deaths dramatically. In particular, Vision Zero—a movement adopted by various cities and countries aimed at eliminating such deaths—has the potential to save lives, he says.

“If we’re really going to get to zero, then we’re really going to need action on a lot of fronts,” he says. “We don’t have to wait just for vehicle technology to achieve Vision Zero.”

Nonetheless, Lund notes that car manufacturers are “closing in on their target” of making their cars free of death and serious injury.

The nine models that were fatality-free were Audi A4 (four-wheel drive), Honda Odyssey, Kia Sorento (two-wheel drive), the Lexus RX 350 (four-wheel drive), Mercedes-Benz GL-Class (four-wheel drive), Subaru Legacy (four-wheel drive), Toyota Highlander hybrid (four-wheel drive), Toyota Sequoia (four-wheel drive) and Volvo XC90 (four-wheel drive).

Three cars had more more than 100 deaths per million registered vehicle years: Kia Rio, Nissan Versa sedan and Hyundai Accent.

TIME public health

Super Bowl Teams’ Cities See 18% Spike in Flu Death

Super Bowl Football
The University of Phoenix Stadium, host of Super Bowl XLIX, is seen on Jan. 29, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. Charlie Riedel—AP

Call it Super Bowl fever. In cities that send teams to the big February game, researchers see an 18% spike in flu death in adults age 65 and older, a new paper from Tulane University shows. And the effect can get seven times worse when the game happens close to the peak of a particularly bad flu season—like the one we’re in right now.

Economists looked at cities hosting and sending teams to the Super Bowl between 1974 and 2009 and analyzed data from death records, population and weather. Cities that hosted the Super Bowl weren’t at increased risk for negative health outcomes, they found—probably in part because they tended to be in warmer areas, which protects against the flu. But in the cities that sent a team to the game, there was an 18% spike in influenza deaths in people 65 and older.

Researchers were able to determine causality, they say, since participation in the Super Bowl is as good as random. And it’s not like the heartbreak of a losing team could be blamed: There wasn’t a difference between winners and losers as the effect seemed to occur in the time leading up to the game, says lead author Charles Stoecker, PhD, assistant professor in the department of global health management and policy at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Can you blame the spike in socializing and the communal nachos? “People go out to a bar or to a Super Bowl party, and they have contact with people they wouldn’t normally or in ways they wouldn’t normally,” he says. “There’s few occasions when we share chips and dip.”

MORE: Here’s How Many Calories You’ll Eat During the Super Bowl

Flu death spikes are common after big one-time events like the winter Olympics and rock festivals, Stoecker says, but the Super Bowl may be in a league of its own since it always happens squarely in flu season.

Would it be a good idea to move the Super Bowl out of the bounds of flu season? Maybe, says Stoecker, especially in years when the influenza strain looks particularly deadly—or in years like this one, when the flu vaccine is only 23% effective. “In lieu of canceling the Super Bowl outright, it would be one way of mitigating transmission.”

So if you must dip, do your part to help: Wash your hands first.

TIME public health

What You Should Know About Chronic Lyme Disease

Yolanda Foster on 'Watch What Happens Live'
Yolanda Foster on Watch What Happens Live on Dec. 23, 2014. Bravo—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Lyme disease affects about 300,000 people in the U.S. each year

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Foster is making waves with her recent blog post about her struggle with chronic Lyme disease. Foster, who was diagnosed with Lyme in 2012, according to People.com, says she’s had severe mental impairment from her condition, writing, “I have lost the ability to read, write, or even watch TV, because I can’t process information or any stimulation for that matter.”

But don’t antibiotics cure Lyme disease and, if so, what exactly is chronic Lyme? Health has the scoop:

What is Lyme disease and how is it treated?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted by ticks. It hits more of us than we realize—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 300,000 people are diagnosed with the disorder each year, about 10 times higher than the number actually reported to the CDC. Left untreated, it can cause symptoms such as headaches and neck stiffness, pain and swelling in joints, even neurological symptoms such as memory problems.

Lyme is diagnosed based on symptoms (including the distinctive “bull’s-eye rash“) and blood tests. Most people recover with a 21-day course of antibiotics, though if the disease has spread to your central nervous system, you may need a longer course (2-4 weeks) of intravenous antibiotics.

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Is there such a thing as chronic Lyme?

While in rare cases an infection can still persist, “when patients talk about chronic Lyme, they’re usually referring to what doctors term ‘post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome,’ where you still have a cluster of symptoms such as fatigue, trouble concentrating, and muscle and joint aches after treatment,” explains Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center. The CDC says approximately 10 to 20% of Lyme disease patients will have lingering symptoms like these. While it’s not clear what causes it, “it could be damage done to the body by the bacteria itself, or it could even be neurotransmitter changes in the brain induced by the prior Lyme disease,” Dr. Fallon says.

How is post-Lyme syndrome treated?

The treatment is itself controversial, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to tell if symptoms remain due to a recurrent infection or if they’re due to residual damage from Lyme. “The current diagnostic tests just reveal whether someone has antibodies due to previous exposure to Lyme disease, so while they indicate if you’ve ever been infected, they don’t show whether or not you’re infected now,” explains Dr. Fallon.

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A small subgroup of doctors argue that the condition is caused by residual bacterial infection and should be treated with long-term antibiotic therapy for months or even years. (Indeed, animal studies do suggest that Lyme infection may persist in some cases, Dr. Fallon says.) However, groups such as the Infectious Diseases Society of America frown on this approach. “There’s no research to show that this type of treatment works—several studies have shown that people taking long-term antibiotic for Lyme disease to treat lingering symptoms fare the same as those who take placebo,” states Chris Ohl, MD, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Dr. Fallon allows for another possibility: Lyme bacteria are “very slow growing, so if you go off antibiotics but find your symptoms return within two to three weeks, it’s highly unlikely that Lyme is the culprit,” he explains. “But if they return within a few months, or even a year, you may have a recurrent infection” and thus may need another (short) course of antibiotics.

If it’s not really Lyme, what causes those symptoms?

It could be another condition entirely—such as another tick-borne infection. “It may very well be that [a patient has] developed an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, which was triggered by the Lyme disease,” adds Dr. Fallon.

HEALTH.COM: 15 Surprising Facts About Rheumatoid Arthritis

“Most of the cases I’ve seen, we’ve done a thorough workup and eventually come up with an underlying condition like anemia, a thyroid condition, a viral infection like Epstein-Barr virus, or even hepatitis C,” says Michael Parry, MD, Thomas J. Bradsell Chair of Infectious Diseases at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut.

If extensive testing reveals nothing, then most doctors recommend cautious monitoring and addressing the symptoms (for example, treating joint or muscle pain with either over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs). It’s also important to utilize therapies also used with conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, including good sleep and exercise habits and, if needed, treatment for depression.

HEALTH.COM: 19 Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Right

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME ebola

The Ebola Virus Is Mutating, Say Scientists

Guinea West Africa Ebola
A health care worker, right, takes the temperatures of school children for signs of the Ebola virus before they enter their school in the city of Conakry, Guinea, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 Youssouf Bah—AP

The outbreak has so far claimed 8,795 lives across the affected West African region

Scientists at a French research institute say the Ebola virus has mutated and they are studying whether it may have become more contagious.

Researchers at the Institut Pasteur are analyzing hundreds of blood samples from Guinean Ebola patients in an effort to determine if the new variation poses a higher risk of transmission, according to the BBC.

“We’ve now seen several cases that don’t have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases,” said human geneticist Dr. Anavaj Sakuntabhai. “These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don’t know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly, but more contagious and that’s something we are afraid of.”

Although virus mutations are common, researchers are concerned that Ebola could eventually morph into an airborne disease if given enough time.

However, there is no evidence to suggest this has happened yet, and the virus is still spread only via direct contact with an infected person.

Institut Pasteur, which first pinpointed the current Ebola outbreak last March, is hoping that two vaccines they are developing will reach human trials by the end of the year.

Current figures indicate 8,795 of some 22,000 cases across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — around 40% — have been fatal.

[BBC]

TIME Infectious Disease

A California High School Suspended 66 Kids Over Measles Fears

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School districts are grappling over whether to make vaccination a condition of enrollment

A two-week suspension for 66 high school students who have not been fully immunized for measles has been handed down by a California high school.

The move comes after one student was believed to have exposed 20 others to the highly contagious disease during a school field trip.

That student is being allowed to return to the Palm Desert High School according to the Los Angeles Times, and the suspended students can return to school earlier if they provide proof of immunization or are medically cleared by the Riverside County Public Health Department.

“We are simply responding, being very careful and making sure we’re taking the best care of students and staff,” Desert Sands Unified School District spokeswoman Mary Perry told Reuters.

School districts are grappling with the decision of whether or not to require students to prove they have been vaccinated before enrollment.

The homegrown measles virus, which causes rash and fever, was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. Its reappearance and subsequent surge has created concerns over parents who do not have their children vaccinated because of fears of negative side effects.

California and the surrounding states, plus Mexico, have reported over 90 cases of measles from an outbreak that is believed to have originated in Disneyland in mid-December.

[Los Angeles Times]

TIME public health

Even More Bad News For Young Football Players

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Former NFL players performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments

Professional football players who began playing tackle football before age 12 experienced more dramatic cognitive decline as adults than their counterparts who begin playing later in life, found a new study in the journal Neurology. Overall, former NFL players in the study performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments.

“As a society we need to question whether we should sanction and condone allowing our children at a young age to having their brains be jostled about inside their skulls hundreds of times per season,” says study author Robert A. Stern, a professor at Boston University.

The study tested 42 former NFL players who were experiencing brain function issues on their ability to remember a list of words, solve problems requiring mental flexibility and read and pronounce uncommon words. Athletes who began playing before age 12 performed significantly worse than their late-starting counterparts on all measures.

MORE: The Tragic Risks of American Football

The results challenge a common misconception that young people are likely fine if they aren’t experiencing full-blown concussions or dramatic injuries. Repeated hits sustained by children under 12, even if they’re not traumatic, may also affect the brain’s structure and function, the study suggests.

“For me, the biggest concern in long-term consequences is not concussion, but rather sub-concussive exposure,” says Stern. “We need to continue anything and everything possible to reduce the number of hits.”

Stern describes the findings as “robust” but noted the study’s limitations. For one, focusing solely on NFL players makes it impossible to generalize the findings to all athletes, or even all football players. Still, he says, the notion that tackle football poses the risk of brain damage just makes “logical sense.”

MORE: Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

The study, released just days before the Super Bowl, adds to a growing body of evidence on the dangers of the sport, particularly for young people. A 2012 Virginia Tech study, for instance, tracked accelerometers in the helmets of youth football players ages 7 and 8 and found that the average player received 107 impacts throughout the course of the season, some at speeds equivalent to a car accident. Parents have responded to the mounting research by questioning whether their kids should play the sport at all. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of children ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football declined by more than 25%.

TIME public health

The WHO Appoints a New, Reform-Minded Head for Africa

Switzerland UN WHO
Matshidiso Moeti speaks to the media during a press conference at the European headquarters of the U.N. in Geneva on Jan. 27, 2015 Salvatore Di Nolfi—AP

"As a region, we need to up our game,” says Dr. Matshidiso Moeti

The World Health Organization (WHO) appointed Botswana’s Dr. Matshidiso Moeti as its new head of Africa operations on Tuesday.

The physician is tasked with revamping the organization on the continent in the wake of the Ebola outbreak and ensuring that the WHO improves its overall response plans to public health crises.

“There is no question that, as a region, we need to up our game,” Moeti told the New York Times this week. “The WHO is reforming, and one of my intentions is to fast-track reform in the region, too.”

Moeti has already unveiled multiple priorities she plans to commence immediately, including ending the Ebola outbreak and pushing more African countries to adopt health insurance for general medical care.

Read more at the New York Times

TIME public health

Paying People Could Help Them Quit Smoking

Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Researchers offered women more than $1,000 to get them to stop smoking

Paying people to quit their bad health habits may be a powerful way to address public health issues like smoking, according to a new study in the BMJ. In the study, pregnant women were more than twice as likely to quit smoking when offered financial incentives than when they were given regular counseling.

“If financial incentives are effective and cost effective they may well have the future potential to sit with vaccines as an important preventive healthcare intervention strategy,” the study says.

The research, which looked at more than 600 pregnant women in the United Kingdom, offered women up to $1,200 dollars in shopping vouchers for following steps to quit smoking. Nearly a quarter of women who were offered the money successfully quit smoking. In the control group, a separate group of women received free nicotine therapy and were counseled on how to quit. Less than 9% of those women were able to kick the habit.

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That success gap remained when researchers followed up a year with the women in both groups who had quit. Fifteen percent of the women who had been paid to quit had stayed away from cigarettes, while only 4% of the counseling group quitters had done the same.

Using financial incentives to encourage better health behavior has been explored in depth in recent years by public health experts, but many remain skeptical due to underlying ethical concerns. Some have argued that such incentives are coercive and diminish a person’s sense of personal responsibility. But the researchers in this study argue that it can help in more ways than one; getting additional funds before a child’s birth helps the people who need financial assistance the most at the time they need help.

“In the developed world there is now a clear socioeconomic gradient in smoking, with tobacco use concentrated among the poorest in society,” the study says. “Receipt of financial incentives can contribute to needed household income in advance of the arrival of a baby in low income households.”

TIME public health

Medical Pot May Have a Place for Very Ill Kids, Says Pediatric Group

Medical Marijuana
Colin Brynn—Getty Images

'The Academy recognizes some exceptions should be made for compassionate use'

In an update to its 2004 policy statement on marijuana legalization, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now says that in some cases, children with certain debilitating illnesses should be allowed derivatives of marijuana to ease their suffering.

The group of pediatricians announced the change in position today in a statement reaffirming its opposition to the legalization of marijuana. It now includes several exceptions for “compassionate use” in children dealing with debilitating or life-limiting conditions. Compounds found in pot, known as cannabinoids, have become a method of stopping seizures for children suffering from epilepsy.

“Given that some children who may benefit from cannabinoids cannot wait for a meticulous and lengthy research process, the Academy recognizes some exceptions should be made for compassionate use in children,” the organization said in a press release.

Read More: Pot Kids: Inside the Quasi-Legal, Science-Free World of Medical Marijuana for Children

The organization stopped short of explicitly endorsing the practice and called for further research into its effectiveness.

“While cannabinoids may have potential as a therapy for a number of medical conditions, dispensing marijuana raises concerns regarding purity, dosing and formulation, all of which are of heightened importance in children,” said policy statement co-author William P. Adelman in the press release.

The organization maintained its steadfast opposition to recreational marijuana use, arguing that allowing its use for adults is more likely to lead to increased use among teenagers.

“Just the campaigns to legalize marijuana can have the effect of persuading adolescents that marijuana is not dangerous, which can have a devastating impact on their lifelong health and development,” said Seth D. Ammerman, another author of the statement, in the release.

TIME Cancer

Many Breast Cancer Patients Don’t Understand Their Condition, Study Says

The disparity is particularly pronounced for minority women

Many breast cancer patients don’t understand the details of their disease, according to a new study. While many believed they understood the grade, stage and type of tumor, only 20% to 58% identified those characteristics correctly.

The study, published Monday in the journal Cancer, found that minority women fared particularly poorly in identifying their tumor characteristics, a finding that remained true even as researchers controlled for factors like education. The lack of understanding about their own disease makes it difficult for patients to make informed medical decisions and to follow prescribed treatments, said study author and Harvard Medical School professor Rachel Freedman.

“Our results illustrate the lack of understanding many patients have about their cancers and have identified a critical need for improved patient education and provider awareness of this issue,” Freedman said.

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