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Health Highlights: Aug. 15, 2018

Last Updated: August 15, 2018.

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Overdose Deaths Reach Record High

A record 72,300 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, new preliminary government estimates show.

The figures, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate a spike in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids and a decline in deaths from heroin, prescription opioid pills and methadone.

The death toll is higher than the peak yearly death totals from HIV, car crashes or gun deaths, according to The New York Times reported Wednesday.

"Because it's a drug epidemic, as opposed to an infectious disease epidemic like Zika, the response is slower," Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Times.

"Because of the forces of stigma, the population is reluctant to seek care. I wouldn't expect a rapid downturn; I would expect a slow, smooth downturn," said Ciccarone, who studies heroin markets.

A 2016 federal government phone survey suggested that around 2.1 million Americans had opioid use disorders. However, not all drug users have telephones and some respondents may not mention their drug use. The actual number could be as high as 4 million, Ciccarone said.

The number of opioid users has been rising "in most places, but not at this exponential rate," Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health, told the newspaper. "The dominant factor is the changing drug supply."


Doctors Remove Contact Lens Embedded in Woman's Eyelid for Years

Doctors recently removed a contact lens that was embedded in a woman's eyelid for nearly three decades after she was hit in the eye while playing badminton.

The woman was 14 at the time and thought she had lost the contact lens. At age 42, she visited an ophthalmologist because her left eyelid had been swollen and drooping for about six months, Fox News reported.

Doctors determined she had a cyst. When they removed it, the cyst broke open and revealed a hard contact lens, according to a paper published recently in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

The woman couldn't recall how the contact lens got there or how long it was there, but her mother remembered that she had been hit in the eye with a shuttlecock during a game of badminton 28 years ago, Fox News reported.

It's not clear why the contact lens only started to cause problems nearly three decades later, the doctors wrote.


Ancient Gene Protects Elephants From Cancer

An ancient gene that protects elephants against cancer has been pinpointed by researchers and could lead to new ways to treat cancer in people.

The gene destroys cells with damaged DNA, something that can trigger cancer, The New York Times reported.

The findings "might tell us something fundamental about cancer as a process. And if we're lucky, it might tell us something about how to treat human disease," study co-author Vincent Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, told The Times.

Due to their size, elephants should be at high risk for tumors, and the lack of cancer in these animals has long intrigued researchers.

In recent years, scientists have started delving into the genes and cells of elephants to find new ways to fight cancer, The Times reported.

The latest findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports.


Zika, West Nile Cases Reported in Alabama

Multiple reports of Zika virus and West Nile virus are being investigated by Alabama health officials.

They noted that Zika hasn't been transmitted locally, the New York Post reported.

"To date in Alabama, the Zika virus has only been identified in individuals known to have traveled to areas where Zika is known to be endemic. There has been no local transmission," the state's health agency said in a news release issued Monday.

People can get Zika virus from mosquito bites, sex and blood transfusions, and a pregnant woman can pass it to her baby, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Infection with the Zika virus causes only mild symptoms in the majority of the cases, but the biggest risk is to pregnant women," Alabama health officials explained. "Zika is now known to cause birth defects and other poor pregnancy-related outcomes if infection occurs during pregnancy."

West Nile is spread by mosquitoes. Most people who are infected have mild or no symptoms and fully recover, but about 1 in 5 develop a fever and may also have headaches, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash, and about 1 in 150 develop serious illness such as inflammation of the spinal cord or brain, the CDC says.

You can protect yourself from mosquito bites by using insect repellents and wearing loose, long sleeve shirts and long pants, the Post reported.

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