Health Menaces Of 2011
Monday, December 26, 2011
Every December, you see lists of the year's standout films,
books, and songs. Here's ours: The most notable film is bacterial.
The must-read? Your text messages, but only if you aren't driving.
And the top song is an instrumental: the sound of your bell being
rung on the field.
Those are three of 2011's top six health scares. Read on to
learn just how scary they were and what you should do to dodge all
six in 2012.
Health scare: German E. coli
The outbreak began in Germany with a batch of tainted
sprouts-and ended with 50 deaths and more than 4,000 infections
worldwide. What made this never-before-seen strain the deadliest in
modern history? One possibility: The German bug is unusually adept
at clinging to the human GI tract, says Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H.,
deputy director of foodborne diseases at the CDC.
Outlook for 2012: There's still one mystery
surrounding the outbreak: Where did this unique E. coli strain come
from? A person? An animal? "Until we understand this, it's tough to
say whether or not an outbreak will occur in the United States,"
says Edward Dudley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science
at Penn State University, who has studied E. coli for a decade.
Protect yourself: Even if the German E. coli
strain doesn't migrate to America, you're still at risk from eating
raw sprouts: They've been the source of at least 30 salmonella and
E. coli outbreaks in the United States since 1996. So make sure you
blanch sprouts for 1 minute in boiling water before you eat them.
Other produce can be safely cleaned with a cold-water rinse plus a
quick scrub, especially if the skin is edible or the produce
requires slicing. For more ways to avoid foodborne viruses,
read The 10 Dirtiest Foods You're Eating. (Your
knife can transport bacteria from the skin into the flesh-a
food-safety slipup that may be behind the recent listeria outbreak
traced to Colorado cantaloupes.) And don't forget to check your
chuck: Simmons College researchers found that only 3 percent of
home cooks check the temperature of hamburgers, despite the fact
that 90 percent of those cooks are aware of the link between raw
ground beef and E. coli. Ground beef and ground pork should hit an
internal temperature of 160 degrees F; poultry should reach 165
Health scare: Bedbugs
Bedbugs are notorious city dwellers. But now the little
bloodsuckers are spreading so fast that even suburbanites are
finding them under mattresses and in dark corners. Infestations
leaped by as much as 30 percent in 2011, according to a new survey
from the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). The reason
for the spike isn't entirely clear, though the study points to an
uptick in travel, bedbugs' increased resistance to pesticides, and
a lack of education on how to stop their spread.
Outlook for 2012: Scientists recently convened
in Washington, D.C., for the Second National Bed Bug Summit, but it
may be a while before we see the results of their strategizing.
After the meeting, the EPA awarded 1-to 2-year research grants to
explore new methods of eradication. In the meantime, you can expect
the spread to continue: The little buggers are among the toughest
pests to eradicate, according to the NPMA.
Protect yourself: Bedbugs like to hide near
their food source-sleeping humans-so check around your sheets,
pillowcases, and mattress for tiny black spots (excrement), reddish
spots (crushed bugs), small white eggs, or bloodstains. If you
suspect you're sleeping with the enemy, place a Climbup Insect
Interceptor Bed Bug Monitor and Trap ($20) under each leg of your
bed. A slick layer of talc lining the traps will capture any
passing pests. Catch a couple? Call an exterminator who's trained
in dealing with bedbugs. Click here for even more ways to eliminate germs
from your life.
Health scare: Caffeine and alcohol
Remember Four Loko? How about Moon-shot? Joose? Every can packed
a powerful combo of alcohol and caffeine-so powerful that in 2010
the FDA warned the drink manufacturers to cut out the caffeine. But
fans weren't deterred. "All those people who were buying the
premixed versions are now mixing it themselves," says Cecile
Marczinski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Northern
Kentucky University, who studies the effects of mixing alcohol and
energy drinks. "There is no indication that this pattern of
drinking has changed in any way."
Outlook for 2012:
The FDA action had an unintended
consequence: It stoked people's curiosity about mixing caffeine and
alcohol. "The minute you take something off the market, everyone
wonders what it is," Marczinski says. Plus, she adds, bars tend to
push energy drinks (they're high-profit items), and the government
can't easily intervene. "Alcohol and energy drinks are two separate
industries, so they are regulated separately."
Protect yourself: Think of an energy drink plus
alcohol as a skull-and-crossbones combination. "All the behaviors
you see with alcohol intoxication, including impulsiveness and bad
decisions, tend to be exacerbated when you add caffeine," says
Marczinski. "You don't feel tired, so you don't accurately perceive
your level of intoxication. You end up drinking more." Even without
the caffeine, unconventional alcoholic drinks like Four Loko can be
dangerous. A new paper in the journal Perspectives on
Psychological Science theorizes that when alcohol comes in an
atypical form or flavor-as a fruity, sodalike beverage, say-your
level of tolerance may be lower because your body isn't expecting
the booze. But what about energy drinks themselves? Do those
popular beverages even work? Find out the truth about the ingredients in energy
Health scare: Antibiotic-resistant
As if Japan didn't have enough health headaches in 2011,
researchers there have discovered a new superstrain of gonorrhea.
The H041 strain stands out from other love bugs because it's
resistant to cephalosporin-the last remaining class of antibiotics
recommended to treat gonorrhea, explains Robert Kirkcaldy, M.D.,
M.P.H., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. "The strain was
collected from a female sex worker-a grave concern because she
probably had multiple sexual partners during the time she was
Outlook for 2012: Looks like a new Japanese
import could arrive on our shores. A 2011 CDC report warns that a
cephalosporin-resistant strain may eventually crop up stateside.
And since "regular" gonorrhea is already the second most common
infectious disease in the United States, the superstrain will
likely spread fast, unless you...
Protect yourself: One of the challenges in
controlling gonorrhea-no matter which strain-is that roughly half
of infected women show no symptoms. In other words, you may not
know your partner is a carrier. Add to that the fact that men often
apply condoms after foreplay begins and remove them before
ejaculation occurs, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of
Sexual Medicine; doing this could raise your risk of STD
transmission. So reach for the rubber early and take it off
late-and make sure the thing fits. Fitted condoms break
significantly less often than standard-size gloves, recent Indiana
University research suggests. For a custom fit, try Coripa condoms,
which come in 55 sizes ($12 for six). And to protect yourself
from the new sex cancer for men, read up on a few
key HPV prevention tips.
Health scare: Sports concussions
Concussions hit the headlines this year from day one: On January
1, Stanley Cup winner Sidney Crosby took a blow to the head and 4
days later was struck again. Doctors diagnosed him with a
concussion; he was out for the rest of the season. In September,
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Eagles quarterback Michael
Vick sustained similar injuries. The big guys brought national
attention to a growing problem: The rate of traumatic brain
injuries, including concussions, is on the rise in the general
population, according to the most recent CDC data.
Outlook for 2012: "Concussion rates may
continue to rise," says Johna Register-Mihalik, Ph.D., A.T.C., a
researcher at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain
Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. The trend may partly be a function of increased
awareness-concussions that once would have been written off are now
being diagnosed. But the game is also changing. "Athletes are
getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and people now often play
sports year-round," she says. Although pro and college leagues have
adopted stricter safety standards, those standards may not trickle
down to the recreational level at which performance is less
critical and doctors aren't waiting on the sidelines, says
Protect yourself: Strengthen your neck to
protect your head. "A stronger neck helps control acceleration of
your head, especially when you're able to prepare yourself for a
blow," says Register-Mihalik. "This in turn may slow the movement
of your brain, which is the cause of concussion." Try isometric
neck flexions-you press your forehead firmly against your hand,
trying to resist as much as possible. Then, whenever you think
you're about to take a hit, try to brace yourself: Look in the
direction of the potential hit, tense your neck muscles, and bend
your knees and waist slightly. "If you're prepared for the impact,
it may help dissipate the force to your brain," Register-Mihalik
Health scare: Multitasking
We'll assume you've wised up and stopped texting behind the
wheel. But even if you aren't stupidly typing and driving, you
could still be endangered by all the idiots who are-and there are
plenty out there: In a recent CDC survey, more than half of U.S.
drivers ages 18 to 29 admitted to texting (or e-mailing!) while
driving at least once in the last 30 days.
Outlook for 2012: To date, 34 states have
banned texting while driving, but legislation may not be the
answer. Since California implemented the ban in 2009, rates have
doubled, according to a new Automobile Club of Southern California
survey. Drivers may now simply hide their phones while texting,
leading them to look down for longer periods of time. As a result,
crash rates have actually increased in some states with texting
bans, according to a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute.
Protect yourself: Learn how to spot a
multitasking motorist: Texting drivers generally drive more slowly
than the rest of traffic and tend to drift in and out of their
lanes, say Clemson University researchers. If you spot a meandering
slowpoke, allow for more than the typical 4-second following
distance, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advises. You
should also pay particular attention as you approach highway
off-ramps-distracted drivers are more likely to miss their exits
and may swerve at the last minute to make them, according to a
recent report from the National Safety Council. For more ways to
handle any driving scenario, check out The 100 Best Car Tips for Men.