Protecting Seniors From Pneumonia

An outbreak of drug-resistant pneumonia that killed three residents of an Oklahoma nursing home two years ago underscores the need to vaccinate the elderly against the infection, researchers say. The pneumonia vaccine is recommended for everyone older than 65, since pneumonia can be especially dangerous for older people. However, investigators found that only three of the 84 residents of the nursing home had been vaccinated.

Doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into the outbreak, which occurred in February 1996 in rural McAlester, Okla. The sickness was caused by a strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae that was resistant to penicillin and six other common antibiotics, they reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. Eleven residents became sick before doctors brought the outbreak under control by administering the vaccine.

The CDC investigators theorize that the infection was spread by a worker whose job included handing out medicines. She had continued to work despite having a fever and respiratory symptoms.

Nationwide, only about 30% of people older than 65 have been vaccinated against pneumonia.

Zinc Drops May Not Help Children or Teens

Zinc lozenges, which have won a popular following in the battle against the common cold, may not work for children and adolescents, according to the researcher who first demonstrated their value in adults. The study was paid for by Quigley Corp. of Doylestown, Pa., makers of Cold-Eeze, the most popular brand of the nonprescription lozenges. The company has issued a statement saying the study did not follow the protocol that had been agreed on, resulting in "bad science" from which no conclusion could be drawn.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic based their findings on a test involving 249 students in grades one through 12 at two school districts in the Ohio city. Some were given zinc lozenges five or six times a day for three weeks while others got identical cherry-flavored hard candy without the zinc. There was no significant difference between the two groups in how long it took the cold symptoms to ease, they reported in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Assn.

However, Quigley said in its statement that 83 of the 249 students in the study should have been disqualified because they were on other medication, had illnesses in addition to or other than colds, or violated the research guidelines in other ways.

Possible Therapy for Parkinson's Patients

A substance that occurs naturally in cell membranes may fight symptoms of Parkinson's disease and help to slow its progression, Philadelphia researchers report in the June Neurology. A team from Jefferson Medical College gave either the substance, GM1 ganglioside, or a placebo to 45 patients with Parkinson's over 16 weeks.

Many who received the drug saw improvement in symptoms, such as rigidity and slowness of movement. Some who have been receiving GM1 treatment for at least two years have seen improvements continue. "Some patients report significant improvement in the quality of their lives, though others say improvements have been modest," said team member Dr. Jay Schneider.

GM1 ganglioside is a normal part of a cell's membrane that helps to control cell growth, development and healing after injury. Researchers speculate that the substance, when used as a drug, either stimulates nerve cells that produce the brain chemical dopamine or causes dopamine nerve endings to regrow in the brain.

Parents Unlikely to See Extent of Kids' Drug Use

Parents are likely to underestimate the probability that their children are abusing drugs, according to a team from the Harvard Medical School. Separately, the researchers surveyed 384 male adolescents older than 12 and their parents about the boys' use of drugs.

They report in the July Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry that the children reported higher rates of use than the parents believed were taking place. About 14% of the youths reported abuse of a substance, while only 5% of parents thought their sons abused any substance. Drug abuse was reported by 3% of youths, compared with 1% of parents; alcohol abuse was reported by 9% of children, versus 3% of parents. The sole exception was cigarette smoking, with parents suspecting that 16% of their sons smoked, while only 13% said they did. Parents' awareness was greater if the children were younger or having social problems.

Ulcer Drug Used in Failed Abortions Tied to Defects

Women risk giving birth to children with permanent facial paralysis if they try and fail to abort their pregnancies with a drug usually used for ulcers, Canadian doctors said in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. Sold by Monsanto Co.'s Searle subsidiary under the brand name Cytotec, the drug misoprostol is not advised to treat ulcers in pregnant women because it can cause vaginal bleeding and lead to contractions.

Misoprostol is available over the counter and used to attempt to end pregnancies in Brazil, where elective abortions are banned. In countries where the procedure is legal and misoprostol is used for abortion, doctors give it with another drug to increase its effectiveness. But in Brazil, up to three-quarters of those who try to abort their pregnancies use only misoprostol, which is ineffective 80% of the time.

Researchers led by Anne Pastuszak of the University of Toronto evaluated 96 Brazilian infants with the facial paralysis known as Mobius' syndrome and found that 49% of their mothers had used misoprostol during the first trimester of pregnancy. In contrast, only 3% of women whose babies had another type of birth defect had taken the drug.

A Link Between Heroin Abstinence and Overdose?

People who die from a heroin overdose are likely to have restricted their use of the drug in the months before the overdose, perhaps leaving their bodies more susceptible to the drug's effects, Italian researchers have found. They studied concentrations of morphine, a heroin metabolite, in hair from overdose victims, drug users and former drug users. Concentrations of morphine in hair are a good indicator of heroin use.

The team from the University of Verona reported in Saturday's Lancet that the hair of overdose victims had much less morphine in it than did the hair of regular users, suggesting that they had abstained from heroin use for four months or longer. "A lower heroin tolerance after a period of abstinence, or a low tolerance owing to light or irregular heroin use, leads to a corresponding decrease in the size of a fatal dose," they said.

--Compiled by THOMAS H. MAUGH II

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