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Kirstie Alley's death at 71 puts spotlight on colon cancer: What women need to know

KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Kirstie Alley's unexpected death at age 71 has put a spotlight on colon cancer, the disease that took her life.

Alley had been recently diagnosed with colon cancer prior to her Dec. 5 death, a rep for the actress confirmed to ABC News.

"We are sad to inform you that our incredible, fierce and loving mother has passed away after a battle with cancer, only recently discovered," Alley's children True and Lillie Parker wrote in a statement shared to Alley's Twitter account Monday night. "She was surrounded by her closest family and fought with great strength, leaving us with a certainty of her never-ending joy of living and whatever adventures lie ahead. As iconic as she was on screen, she was an even more amazing mother and grandmother."

Colorectal cancer -- the umbrella term for colon and rectal cancers -- is the fourth most common cancer in men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It affects men and women almost equally. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

At age 71, Alley was in the age demographic -- ages 45 to 75 -- when colon cancer is most likely to occur, CDC data shows.

It is not known exactly when Alley was diagnosed with colon cancer, or what stage she was in or what treatment she received. Her family said only that her cancer was "recently discovered."

While colon cancer does have signs and symptoms, they often may not show until the disease is in its later stages, according to ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.

"The key thing is that in early stages of colon cancer, there can be no symptoms or someone could be asymptomatic," Ashton said Wednesday on "Good Morning America." "When you get to more advanced stages, there can be signs and symptoms like abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, blood in stool or anemia that is detected, but those are the signs typically when you're talking about metastatic or later stages."

Risk factors for colon cancer include everything from family history and certain genetic mutations to lifestyle factors like obesity, inactivity, smoking and alcohol to excess, and a diet low in fiber, fruits and vegetables, according to Ashton.

"It's typically not one thing," she said of the risk factors.

Colon cancer has been more in the spotlight in recent years with the death of Chadwick Boseman at age 43 and, more recently, with '80s pop star Taylor Dane revealing she battled the same disease.

Earlier this year, a major study found that more young people are being diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer, prompting renewed calls among doctors for early detection and screening.

Researchers from University of Colorado School of Medicine found that young patients under 40 years old have had the highest increase in rates of new late-stage colon cancer cases diagnosed, meaning the cancer has already spread at the time of diagnosis. In particular, subgroups of non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic participants had the highest increases.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force, the leading organization on preventative medicine, recently changed the guidelines to start screening for colon cancer to age 45, down from 50, in light of the trends of increasing cases of colon cancer in younger people.

There are several different ways of screening for colon cancer, including visual exams and stool tests.

The most commonly known test, a colonoscopy, requires a doctor to use a flexible tube with a camera at the end to directly look at your colon and rectum. Flexible sigmoidoscopy can also be done where only the lower third of the colon and rectum is examined. During both tests, suspicious areas can be biopsied and removed if necessary.

A “virtual colonoscopy” uses a CT scan to take images of your colon and rectum. All these tests require a bowel prep to allow for good visualization.

Stool-based tests include three blood tests that look for hidden blood, antibodies or abnormal DNA in the stool, all indicative of cancer or polyp cells. If a test other than a colonoscopy is performed and turns up abnormal results, it should be followed up with a colonoscopy.

While a colonoscopy can be a daunting test for some due to the prep work involved -- including drinking a prescription laxative drink -- Ashton said there are steps people can take to make it easier.

"The first thing I tell my patients is you have anesthesia. You are asleep. You will feel no discomfort, no embarrassment," said Ashton. "But the key thing for the prep ... I say start two days before with a clear liquid diet."

Some examples of liquids to consume include ginger ale, clear chicken broth, Jell-O and coconut water, according to Ashton.

"That will make the day before [the colonoscopy] much easier," said Ashton. "And it will make the job of a gastroenterologist easier because they'll be able to get a better visualization."

Amrit K. Kamboj, MD, an internal medicine resident, and Vanya Jain, a medical student from New Jersey Medical School, who previously worked with the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Experts share advice on making New Year's resolutions that last

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(NEW YORK) -- For a New Year's resolution that lasts, start now, start simple and be specific.

Almost half of all Americans make a New Year's resolution each year, research shows.

Most commonly, people aspire to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking or eat healthier. Many will abandon their resolution by a month or less into the new year.

One barrier is that forming a habit takes time -- about 66 days, on average, at least one study suggests.

"It takes about two to three months for someone to start feeling confident and comfortable with a new habit, but the repetition of the habit can start to become more of a routine after several days" Dr. Beth Frates, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, told ABC News.

When deciding on a resolution, Frates recommends considering the six pillars of health: nutritious diet, physical activity, restorative sleep, elimination of substances (e.g. cigarettes), positive relationships and stress reduction.

"A potential first step is to compare your daily habits to the established national guidelines for these pillars," said Frates. "A person can see where they are in relationship to the guidelines and rate how important each guideline is to their health and wellbeing."

And studies show that simpler habits form faster than complicated ones.

Drinking a glass of water each morning will stick a lot more quickly than doing jumping jacks before work every day, for example.

"But at the same time, you don't want to pick a behavioral goal that is too easy, since that is unlikely to be challenging enough to hold your attention," said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and author of The Self Care Solution, a book about creating self-care habits that stick.

Proper planning is also important.

"A reasonable goal for someone is a SMART goal," said Frates, explaining that a "SMART" goal is one that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

A goal to "run 4 days a week for 30 minutes" is more specific than "I will run more."

One way to measure success is by marking a calendar or an app with each run.

Achievability of a goal should be based on one's current patterns. For those who currently don't run at all, a goal to "run 2 days per week for 20 minutes" is a smarter initial choice for long-term success.

To keep a goal relevant, consider the "why" behind it, such as "running will make my heart stronger."

A time-bound goal has a deadline for when to reassess success. After four weeks, for instance, a new SMART goal can be made based on the previous month's progress.

"Setting a short-term goal that aligns with your long-term goals will help you to stay on track," said Frates.

The good news: One missed day is OK. Research shows that missing one day does not reduce the chance of habit formation.

The key is to keep going.

"The process of getting through the lapse and successfully getting back on track usually happens within the first two months," said Frates.

So starting now, experts say, is the choice that could boost that New Year's resolution from a pattern to a habit by January's end.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Women not getting equal medical advice when it comes to heart health, study finds

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(NEW YORK) -- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, but women may not be receiving the same treatment, according to a new study.

Though guidelines for heart disease prevention are gender neutral, researchers report that, in practice, doctors advise less aggressive strategies for women.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital examined the advice doctors gave to patients at high risk for heart disease to help prevent their first cardiac event and found that women were advised more often to make lifestyle changes alone.

"Our study found that women are advised to lose weight, exercise and improve their diet to avoid cardiovascular disease, but men are prescribed lipid-lowering medication," Dr. Prima Wulandari, a cardiology clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in the study findings. "This is despite the fact that guideline recommendations to prevent heart disease are the same for men and women."

The researchers examined the advice that nearly 3,000 high-risk men and women received for prevention of heart disease, based on participants in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Study from 2017 to 2020.

They found that though both men and women were eligible, men were 20% more likely to be prescribed statins. Women, on the other hand, were almost 40% more likely to receive recommendations for behavioral modifications, like losing weight, exercising more and stopping smoking.

The study was presented Dec. 3 at a medical conference in Singapore.

Close to 700,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year making it the most common cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among women, heart disease causes 1 in 5 deaths, and around 1 in 16 women over 20 years of age have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease, according to the CDC.

Coronary heart disease can present with chest pain, nausea, and breathlessness, among other symptoms. However, typical symptoms are mostly seen in men.

Women tend to experience less chest pain than men. Instead, they experience more pain in the middle or upper back, neck or jaw, more dizziness, extreme tiredness, pressure in chest and stomach pain -- all symptoms that can easily lead to misdiagnosis.

Multiple studies have shown that in health care overall, inherent biases among doctors lead to women not being diagnosed or having a delay in diagnosis.

When it comes to why the prevention of heart disease in women is sub-optimal, according to the study, the reasons vary.

One reason, according to Wulandari, is that heart disease may still be seen as something that predominantly impacts men, despite the statistics showing women are also affected.

The rate of coronary heart disease is higher in men until 75 years of age, and women present with more atypical symptoms which could lead to misdiagnosis of their disease.

"A potential root of the discrepancy in advice is the misconception that women have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than men," said Wulandari. "Our findings highlight the need for greater awareness among health professionals to ensure that both women and men receive the most up-to-date information on how to maintain heart health."

Another potential reason for the treatment bias is that there is an underrepresentation of women in research studies that can lead to practitioners being cautious of generalization of the heart disease management to both genders.

In addition, women themselves may underestimate their own risk of heart disease, and for other chronic health care conditions, it has been consistently shown that women prefer lifestyle intervention over medications.

According to ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, in addition to a greater awareness among health care professionals, there are prevention strategies of which patients themselves should be aware.

Around 80% of heart disease can be prevented, Ashton said Tuesday on "Good Morning America," citing American Heart Association data.

Some health changes that can help prevent heart disease include weight management, exercise, eating more fiber and less saturated fat, consuming less alcohol, monitoring blood glucose and not smoking cigarettes.

Ashton, a board-certified OB-GYN, said it is also important to take prescribed medications if indicated.

"If indicated, blood pressure medication, cholesterol-lowering medication for both men and women have been shown to save lives," she said.

Dr. Sristi Sharma is a preventive medicine physician and is a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Some schools close to stem flu outbreaks -- but is it a good long-term solution?

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(NEW YORK) -- Some schools across the United States have been closing early in an attempt to stem influenza outbreaks.

In Maine, students at Casco Bay High School in Portland were dismissed early on Friday, Dec. 2, due to 32% of pupils and staff members out sick with the virus, according to a news release from the school.

Two other schools in the state, Harpswell Community School and Mt. Ararat Middle School, both of which are north of Portland, announced closures Tuesday, Dec. 6, "due to student illness" and will reopen Dec. 7 after the buildings are "deep cleaned."

Additionally, in southeastern Kentucky, the Bell County School District, announced schools would be closed Monday, Dec. 5, and Tuesday, Dec. 6.

"This break will hopefully allow our students and staff to recover from all the sickness that has been going through our community," Superintendent Tom Gambrel wrote in a letter to the community.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nearly every U.S. state is reporting either "very high" or "high" levels of flu-like activity.

What's more, the hospitalization rate, which sits at 16.6 per 100,000, is the highest it's ever been at this point in the season since 2010-2011, or as far back as statistics are available.

An infectious diseases expert told ABC News that school closures are not sustainable in the long-term and schools should focus on other interventions to stem outbreaks.

"I think what we've learned from the pandemic is that school closures are really a last resort and should be avoided at all costs because of the impact it has on kids, the broad impact on kids and their parents," Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said.

Studies, including one from the Netherlands, have suggested that remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic led to learning losses and increased learning disparities among students.

Brownstein said the primary focus should be on vaccination. As of Nov. 19, only 40% of children in the U.S. aged 6 months and older have received their flu shot, CDC data shows.

"Flu vaccination remains the cornerstone for reducing flu in the population," he said. "The rollout has been slow this season despite potentially being the worst season of flu we've seen in a decade."

Brownstein continued, "What I'm worried about is the upcoming holiday season, travel, mobility, mixing. It presents an opportunity for flu virus to spread so getting that flu shot is imperative."

Additionally, he recommended schools stress that students and staff stay home when sick, make sure everyone is practicing hand hygiene – including washing hands with soap and water – and ensuring that classrooms are properly ventilated.

"These are all things we should focus way before we should ever consider closing schools," Brownstein said. "Schools closures should be reserved for really challenging situations."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Firearm deaths among Black men at 28-year high, doctors are taking steps to reframe gun violence as one of America's major health crisis

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(NEW YORK) -- There's been a substantial increase in firearm-related deaths in the United States over the past three decades and Black men are the most affected, according to new research from a team of emergency room doctors. They're 23 times more likely to experience firearm-related homicide than white men, the study showed.

"Gun violence is an incredible scourge in our country. Gun violence affects everybody, and that's an important thing to recognize. However, it affects certain groups far more than others. Black men speak to one of the greatest disparities, if not the greatest disparity," co-author Eric Fleegler, associate professor of pediatrics and emergency physician at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

In a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, Fleegler and colleagues analyzed disparities in firearm-related deaths between 1990 and 2021. They showed firearm-related homicides are greatest among Black men between 20 and 40 years of age. Firearm-related violence for Black men is at a 28-year high, the analysis found.

"There are these hotspots where firearm fatalities are happening more frequently, and interventions need to be catered to where those are happening. We're seeing huge rates of firearm-related homicides among young Black and African American males -- that's the population where we may need to think about implementing violence prevention strategies," said co-author Chris Rees, an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

To reframe firearm violence as a public health crisis, the American Medical Association, one of the nation's largest doctor associations, established the first taskforce on firearm violence prevention in November.

"We cannot continue to live this way…In movie theaters, houses of worship, hospitals, big cities and small towns, firearm violence has shattered any sense of security and taken lives. As physicians, we are committed to ending firearm violence by advocating for common-sense, evidence-based solutions, and this task force will be key to that ongoing effort," Jack Resneck Jr. president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement at the launch of the taskforce.

Experts say there's a range of factors contributing to the high rates of gun deaths among Black men.

"Weak gun laws cause more damage in places that have been subjected to systemic racial inequalities," said Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist, and an associate professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Medical associations like the AMA have called for more gun laws over the years to combat firearm violence -- but there was no governmental action until this past June, when Congress passed the first gun law in 30 years.

But gun laws alone will not solve the societal issues that contribute to firearm violence among Black males.

In places where unemployment rates are higher, where there isn't equal access to safe housing, and where public infrastructure is neglected, people may be more exposed to dangerous behavior, Gardere said. Addressing those issues "would help Black and Brown people, especially males, be able to avert gun violence -- whether as victims or as perpetrators," he said.

Reframing firearm violence as a public health issue means affected communities need to be at the table as vocal members of any taskforce.

"The next step I'd like to see is addressing things at the community level and taking into account what communities think is feasible. I don't think any community wants to see higher rates of firearm fatalities," said Rees.

All hands are needed to solve this continually escalating problem.

"Unfortunately, in our country, the firearm epidemic is getting worse at an accelerating pace," Fleegler said.

Faith Crittenden, MD MPH is a resident physician in pediatrics from Yale–New Haven Children's Hospital and contributing correspondent of the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Pediatrician and mom shares the protections she's taking amid 'tripledemic' of flu, RSV and COVID-19

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez/Instagram

(NEW YORK) -- Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez says she knows firsthand the worry that comes with being a parent amid what some health experts are calling a "tripledemic," with high rates of flu, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and COVID-19.

Bracho-Sanchez is a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and the mother of a 14-month-old son who had to be taken to the hospital earlier this year to be treated for pneumonia after having a viral illness.

"It was really, really scary," Bracho-Sanchez told ABC News' Good Morning America of her son William's illness, from which he eventually recovered. "So in addition to relating to my patients, of course, as their pediatrician, I am relating in this moment as a mom who has had her own child get sick and develop a complication from a viral illness this season."

After a harsh fall season, flu and respiratory illnesses continue to show no signs of slowing down this winter.

Currently, 44 U.S. states as well as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are reporting "very high" or "high" levels of influenza-like activity, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released last week.

Pediatric bed occupancy has steadily remained the highest it has been in the last two years; last month, the CDC issued an official health advisory in response to the rise in respiratory infections in children.

The ongoing higher rates of flu, RSV and COVID-19 come at a time when children tend to be indoors more often due to colder weather, and when families tend to be busy with school activities and holiday gatherings.

Bracho-Sanchez said her son attends daycare and they hope to gather with their family for Christmas, so she is taking extra precautions now to help prevent illness.

"As a mom right now, so much feels out of my control," said Bracho-Sanchez. "But I am trying to prevent the things that I can prevent."

Here are six steps Bracho-Sanchez said she is taking to help protect her son's health amid the "tripledemic."

1. Keeping up-to-date on vaccinations: Bracho-Sanchez said her son has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza, which she recommends for all kids ages 6 months and older.

"I have peace of mind knowing that even if he is exposed to either one of those illnesses, he is much less likely to develop severe complications because I have vaccinated him," she said. "I trust the vaccines. They are safe."

Children ages 6 months and older are eligible to get a flu vaccine as well as a COVID-19 vaccine, with "rare exceptions," according to the CDC. Both vaccinations are free and are widely available to doctors' offices and local pharmacies.

Bracho-Sanchez said it is safe for children to get both their flu and COVID-19 vaccine shots at the same time.

She also said it's important for adult caregivers and loved ones of children to also get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19.

2. Watching for symptoms: Bracho-Sanchez said it's a reality that most children will develop at least one cold this season, and that most will recover at home and have no lingering complications.

There are times, as Bracho-Sanchez said she experienced, that a child needs additional medical help, so she said she continues to watch for those symptoms in her own son.

Those symptoms include dehydration, a fever that lasts for three days or longer, and a child who is worsening or experiencing respiratory distress, according to Bracho-Sanchez.

"A child who's breathing fast or who looks like they're having trouble breathing, like they're having to work so hard to breathe, that is the sign to go seek help," she said. "And any child who had been getting better at home and all of a sudden seems to worsen, the fevers had gone away and now they come back, or they had been perking up a little bit, and all of a sudden, they really seem like they're not acting like themselves, that is a child that needs to be seen as soon as possible."

3. Limiting indoor gatherings: Bracho-Sanchez said she is limiting the parties and indoor gatherings that she and her husband and son attend to only those that are "really meaningful."

"We want to see family this holiday season. Our family is getting vaccinated, and we're not going to cancel those gatherings," she said. "But perhaps things that are less meaningful to us, we're going to skip this season."

She continued, "We're still going to playgrounds. We're still doing outdoor play dates when we can, when the weather allows it, because he's still a child and it's important for us to live our lives as best we can and prioritize the things that are meaningful to us."

4. Wearing face masks: Bracho-Sanchez said she and her husband continue to wear face masks when in crowded, indoor spaces, even if they are no longer mandatory.

"It does no harm and it can actually bring you some protection," she said of mask wearing in crowded spaces. "Kids over [age] 2 do really, really well with masks if you teach them and if you normalize it for them."

The American Academy of Pediatrics says face masks should not be worn by children under age 2. It recommends face masks be worn by several groups of people, including those over age 2 who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and by families with babies under 6 months of age who cannot be vaccinated.

5. Staying home when sick: Bracho-Sanchez said if her son is experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms like a fever or a runny nose or cough, she will keep him home from daycare to help prevent the spread of germs.

"I know so many of us have missed work, have had to cancel other activities when our kids get sick because so many colds are going around," she said. "But as best we can, let's keep them home if they are sick."

6. Washing hands: Bracho-Sanchez said she encourages families, including her own, to continue the good hand-washing habits that so many people developed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Hand-washing can absolutely help us prevent COVID-19, influenza, RSV, and so many other things that are circulating right now," she said. "So absolutely keep up the hand-washing, keep up the hand-sanitizing when you don't have access to a sink and let's keep teaching our children and getting them in that habit."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Health officials make urgent push for flu and COVID shots as hospitals feel the strain

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(WASHINGTON) -- Health officials are making another urgent push to encourage flu and COVID vaccinations, as multiple respiratory viruses swirl around the country inundating both pediatric and adult hospitals. About 75% of pediatric hospital beds are filled and flu hospitalizations are at the highest level in a decade, for this time in the season.

“Levels of flu-like illness, which includes people going to the doctor with a fever, cough or sore throat are at either high or very high levels in 47 jurisdictions and that is up from 36 jurisdictions just last week,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a telebriefing today.

This week, the CDC is observing National Influenza Vaccination Week to encourage everyone over 6 months and older to get a flu shot. Experts say it’s not too late to get vaccinated.

“I want to emphasize that flu vaccines can be lifesaving and importantly, there is still time to get vaccinated to be protected against flu this season and its potentially serious consequences,” said Walensky.

This flu season has been one of the most significant in recent memory with nearly 9 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from flu so far, according to CDC estimates.

This year’s flu vaccine, as well as the updated COVID booster, have been formulated to better protect against currently circulating strains. Experts say you can get both shots at the same time.

“You can get both [flu and COVID] vaccines at the same time. I know everyone's tired of getting shots. We all have booster fatigue. But understand, you could get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations if you don't get vaccinated,” said Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, board chair of the American Medical Association during the CDC telebriefing.

Those who have received the updated COVID booster have a 15 times lower risk of death from the disease, according to CDC data. Those over the age of 5 are currently eligible for the shot, while Pfizer and BioNTech have just submitted an application to the FDA to authorize the shot as a booster in children 6 months through 4 years of age, according to a press release out today.

COVID hospitalizations are beginning to trend upwards again as well, with those over the age of 70 seeing a nearly 28% increase in the past week.

While there are vaccines available for flu and COVID, RSV is another threatening virus that has especially impacted pediatric hospitals – a virus with no vaccine currently authorized in the U.S.

If you do get diagnosed with flu and COVID, there are antivirals available that can reduce the impact of symptoms as well as the possibility of severe illness and death.

“There are specific antivirals for flu and specific antivirals for COVID. But flu antivirals don't work for COVID and vice versa. And the only way to know for sure what you have is to get tested,” said Fryhofer.

Experts also reiterated the importance of staying home when sick in addition to getting your shots.

“Please stay home when you're sick. Share your love by not sharing your sickness. This holiday season, please get vaccinated, it's the best way to protect yourself, it’s the best way to protect your loved ones and it's the best way to protect your community,” said Dr. Sandra Fryhofer.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Poison center reports for child marijuana use rose 245% in last 20 years: Study

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(PORTLAND, Ore.) -- Between 2000 and 2020, reports to poison centers for child and teen marijuana use increased by 245%, according to a new study from the Oregon Health and Science University.

The researchers analyzed more than 330,000 reports in the National Poison Data System over the last 20 years and found the increase in marijuana rates was the most of any substance, with the largest increase between 2017 and 2020.

Alok Patel, ABC News medical contributor and pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health, said he's not surprised. "Marijuana is readily accessible, in multiple forms, whether at a store, from a friend or relative, or online," he told ABC News.

Alcohol use reports slowly decreased across the same time frame and were surpassed by marijuana in 2014, according to the study.

Edible marijuana preparations accounted for the highest increase in calls to poison centers, while dextromethorphan, used in cough medicine, had the highest number of cases across the 20-year period, accounting for 15% of reports. This was followed by benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, which made up 7.5% of cases.

Marijuana had the highest number of calls from 2018 to 2020. Older male teens ages 16 to 18 were the most likely to be involved with the reported cases, regardless of the substance, the study found.

The reports to poison centers were calls from health professionals, public health agencies or the public for exposures to any substance where there was a health concern and intentional misuse. The calls may have come in because people used the drug improperly, took it to achieve a high or overdosed. Deaths from any substance were rare (0.1%) and most deadly ingestions were in older adolescents.

Overall, between 2000 and 2020, the substances most commonly responsible for calls to poison centers were over-the-counter medications, household products, or common childhood prescriptions, like Benadryl, Tylenol or anti-depressant medications.

In the study, the authors wrote that they suspected the rapid increase in reports of child marijuana use, particularly between 2017 and 2020, may be related to the recent legalization of marijuana across the nation. However, this will require more research to clarify.

"These are important conversations that need to happen alongside conversations about legalizing marijuana," Patel said. "While it is true that other substances are far more dangerous when ingested, this doesn't mean marijuana is harmless... We still have a lot to learn about the long-term effects of marijuana use in the developing adolescent brain."

Surya Manickam, MD MSc, is a resident physician in pediatrics at Columbia University/New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Los Angeles County mask mandate could return as COVID cases rise

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(LOS ANGELES) -- Los Angeles County may soon reimpose indoor mask mandates as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in the area.

During a press conference Thursday, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the largest county in the United States had reached "medium" COVID-19 transmission levels and will require face coverings if it reaches the "high" category.

As of Dec. 1, Los Angeles County is averaging 2,490 new COVID-19 infections every day, the highest number recorded since Aug. 26, according to health department data.

Ferrer said the real count is likely much higher due to several people testing positive with at-home rapid tests and not reporting the results to health officials or due to people not testing at all.

Additionally, there are currently 1,164 residents hospitalized in the county due to the virus, which is the highest number of patients seen since Aug. 11.

Daily deaths are still relatively low at 14, but the figure could rise because COVID-related fatalities tend to lag a few weeks behind case and hospitalization increases, Ferrer noted.

"There is this common line of thinking that the pandemic is over and COVID is no longer of concern, but these numbers clearly demonstrate that COVID is still with us," she said.

Two weeks ago, county officials said they were "strongly recommending" that residents wear masks in indoor public settings but stopped short of requiring them after the COVID-19 case rate hit 100 per 100,000 residents.

Currently, the weekly rate is 185 per 100,000 and Los Angeles County would likely be considered "high" if it reaches 200 per 100,000.

If cases keep climbing at the same rate, Ferrer said the county will likely reach the "high" category by next week.

According to Ferrer, mask requirements will return if Los Angeles County sees daily average hospital admissions exceed a rate of 10 per 100,000 and if more than 10% of staffed inpatient beds are being occupied by COVID patients. Both are benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Given both the increases in hospitalizations and the lack of certainty in the winter trajectory for COVID-19, continuing some common-sense mitigation strategies that we know work to limit transmission and illness, including masking and being up to date on vaccines and boosters, remains a very sensible approach," she said.

Health department data shows 73% of all residents are fully vaccinated but the percentages vary widely by age.

Seniors aged 65 and older have the highest rate with 92% fully vaccinated while children between ages 6 months and 4 years have the lowest rate with just 6% fully vaccinated.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Suffering from flu, RSV or COVID-19? How you can tell the difference

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(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. is facing a surge of respiratory viruses, mainly driven by COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Flu and RSV have appeared earlier than usual and have particularly affected children, leading to 78% of pediatric hospital beds being full, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

All three viruses have symptoms that are similar, which can make them difficult to tell apart. But knowing which virus a person has can help them receive proper treatment or, if need be, let them know if they need to isolate.

Here are some questions to consider when trying to determine if you have COVID-19, flu or RSV.

What are the symptoms?

COVID-19, flu and RSV are more similar to each other than they are different in terms of symptoms.

One of the only symptoms exclusive to one virus and not the others is loss of taste and smell, which has been a hallmark symptom of COVID-19.

However, public health experts told ABC News the absence of one of the symptoms does not mean a patient doesn't have a particular virus and that the only way to be sure is to get tested.

"In most cases, if anybody has generic symptoms, such as fever, cough, runny nose, there's going to be no real way to distinguish which one is which without a test," Dr. Scott Roberts, an assistant professor and the associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine, told ABC News.

How quickly did symptoms come about?

Flu symptoms typically appear rather quickly while symptoms of RSV and COVID-19 appear more gradually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 has an incubation period of two to 14 days while RSV has an average incubation of about five days but can be anywhere from two to eight days.

By comparison, flu has an incubation period of one to four days.

"So, if somebody says, 'I went to Thanksgiving party yesterday where someone had flu and the next day I had a fever,' I can already tell you that's flu," Roberts said. "I know it's much too fast for it to be COVID."

How old is the patient?

Public health experts told ABC News that depending on how old a patient is can affect the severity of the disease.

For example, RSV is most severe for infants younger than six months older and young children, particularly those with weakened immune systems or congenital lung or heart disease.

"Children under six months of age and children maybe a little bit older who have underlying medical conditions or who were premature, end up with the shortness of breath and the difficulty breathing because their airways are just so small, and they don't have a lot of reserve there to move air through the small air passages when they're inflamed," Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told ABC News.

However, relatively young and healthy adults are not likely to have a severe case of RSV if they get infected.

"In children, we tend to see a lot more of the sort of bronchiolitis respiratory issues with RSV," Dr. Allison Bartlett, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medical Center, told ABC News. "Adults, when they get RSV, it tends to be a like a cold. It's just like one of the colds that you would get every year."

With COVID-19, age is the number one risk factor when it comes to severe disease and death.

As of the week ending Nov. 19, Americans aged 65 and older make up 92% of all deaths from the virus, according to an ABC News analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What treatments or precautions do I need to follow?

"Not everyone needs to be tested; our pediatricians' offices and hospitals are overloaded," Bartlett said. However, figuring what the illness is can help treat the patient and potentially family members or close contacts, she said.

For example, with COVID-19, it's important to follow CDC guidelines, which include isolating for at least five days -- or longer if symptoms don't improve -- and wearing a mask around others.

Additionally, they can be prescribed Paxlovid if they are at risk of severe illness.

With flu, patients can receive Tamiflu to shorten the course of their illness as long as it is given early on and people who are exposed to flu can receive the treatment to prevent them from getting sick.

However, the most important thing a person can do if they are infected -- when possible -- is to stay home.

"If you're really, really sick, go the hospital. If you're not that sick, and it looks like a common cold, then you stay home and don't infect people," Doron said.

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New study finds some natural hair loss supplements may actually work

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(NEW YORK) -- Pumpkin seed oil, zinc and other nutritional supplements may help with hair loss, according to new research published in JAMA Dermatology.

Researchers in Boston and Miami reviewed 30 different studies -- some had men participating, while others focused on women, and another looked at hair loss in children -- and found nutritional supplements with the best potential benefits from several hair loss brands and natural supplements.

A few of the brands include Viviscal, Nourkrin, Nutrafol, Lamdapil and Pantogar, and potentially beneficial supplements include the likes of capsaicin and isoflavone, omegas 3 and 6 with antioxidants, apple nutraceutical, total glucosides of paeony and compound glycyrrhizin tablets, zinc, tocotrienol and pumpkin seed oil, according to the findings, published Wednesday.

All of the supplements in the study reportedly had mild to no side effects.

Whether or not the supplements work may depend on the person and the type of hair loss that person is experiencing, according to health experts.

The study reported that zinc improved hair thickness and density, apple nutraceutical showed increased hair density and hair formation, and Viviscal showed improvements in hair counts and decreased hair shedding.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who has shared her own COVID-related hair loss journey, said the supplements noted in the research are "widely available."

She said treatment options will be individual to each person.

"I think the bottom line here is that you have to get at, pardon the pun, the root cause of your hair loss, because it's not one size fits all," Ashton said Friday on ABC's Good Morning America. "But if you look at how these supplements produced the results that they did, according to this compilation of studies, they varied."

Ashton recommends speaking with a dermatologist to discuss treatment options and what works best for a specific type of hair loss. She said the evidence is still emerging on the beneficial effects of supplements for hair loss.

"I want to emphasize these results can vary," said Ashton. "They can be mild. They can be more significant, but for people suffering with significant hair loss issues, usually a visit to a dermatologist is step one."

Ashton said she found success by varying her hair styling techniques, in addition to diet and supplements.

"It's not just about diet and nutritional supplements, but I think the key thing here is evaluate your particular situation," she said. "For me, diet was a big contributing factor, but then resting your hair from styling or coloring damage and my favorite, those clip-on ponies and wigs, can be really, really helpful."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Surgeon General Vivek Murthy advises on flu, RSV and COVID-19

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(WASHINGTON) -- Health officials are warning of a "triple threat" of flu, RSV and COVID-19 across the country and hospitals are continuing to see a surge in pediatric RSV cases.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy joined GMA3 to discuss how people can best prepare themselves for the winter months, what this flu season will look like, and how the federal government is working with hospitals and health care workers across the country.

GMA3: Doctor, good to have you with us, as always. I know you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but we're talking about flu, RSV and COVID. Can you give us an idea, though, which one of these is kind of your leading concern, given what we're seeing in hospitals?

MURTHY: Well, it's so good to be with all of you again. Look, I think we have to be cognizant that all three; COVID, RSV, and the flu are threats… The good news is that we are not powerless in the face of these viruses. There is something we can do to help prevent our kids and adults from getting these.

And this is very personal for me too, my two small kids who are 4 and 6. They've both been sick this winter with various viruses. I was in the emergency room myself with my daughter, who was ill a couple of weeks ago. So I know how this feels for parents who are scared and worried out there.

Well, with COVID and the flu, the good news is we have vaccines available and the most important job of these vaccines is to save your life and keep you out of the hospital. And by that measure, they are working well.

So I would urge parents to please get your children and get yourself vaccinated for COVID and the flu. You can do that at the same time by the way. For RSV, it turns out that that virus spreads similar to other viruses.

And taking measures like staying home if you're sick, avoiding contact with those who are sick, making sure you're washing your hands regularly. These can all help us with reducing the spread of the virus.

Let's keep this in mind because it's more important than ever, especially as hospitals are filling up, children's hospitals in particular, that we take these measures because they're one way that we can take care of our kids, but also relieve the strain on health care workers.

GMA3: Dr. Murthy, I hope you don't mind us asking, though, as you mentioned your kids, are the little ones okay?

MURTHY: Well, thank you so much for asking. Yes, thankfully, we were blessed to be able to get good care for my daughter. Their doctors and nurses took great care of her and she was in the hospital for about the better part of a day, but was able to come home. And she's much better now. Thank you.

GMA3: And Vivek, it's Jen. Nice to talk to you again. I want to stay on RSV for a second because as you know, there are some hospitals in certain parts of the country that are at or approaching 100% capacity for their pediatric beds, even though elderly people are also affected by RSV. What in particular is being done at the hospital level to help them with resources that they need?

MURTHY: Yeah, I'm glad you raised this because I think many people may not realize this strain on our hospital systems right now. And this is a strain not just due to RSV, but for the last two and a half years.

Our nurses, doctors, pharmacists, health care workers have been dealing with waves of COVID, and they are under great strain now. We have been cognizant of this and working very closely with health care systems, with the medical associations and with states and local jurisdictions directly.

We're doing several things. Number one, we're offering them direct support when they need it in terms of personnel, ventilators, equipment. We are also working closely with them to coordinate so that across a given region or a state, beds can be utilized and at the most efficient, so that even if one hospital doesn't have beds, they can work with other institutions that may have space, you know, in their region.

And we're staying closely aligned with them to provide additional trainings and support as needed. So we're all in this together.

We're going to stay working closely with these institutions to make sure they have the resources they need. But keep in mind that if you want to help the hospital systems one of the most important things you can do is to get vaccinated for COVID and flu, to reach for Paxlovid, which is a medication to treat COVID-19 if you're in a high risk group. These are some of the best ways to keep people out of the hospital, and our hospitals need all the support that they can get right now.

GMA3: Dr. Murthy, I want to talk about influenza now. According to the CDC, two thirds of states here in this country are reporting high or very high levels of influenza-like activity. Talk about why we're seeing these high numbers so early and what your concerns are heading into the winter months.

MURTHY: Hmm. So it's a good question. The last couple of years have been very unusual for flu and RSV. You know, during the early years of COVID, when people were isolated, taking precautions, including wearing masks, we actually saw very low rates of flu and RSV compared to normal years.

And now as we come back to normal and as you know, more and more people are getting back to their day to day lives. We're seeing these viruses come back and at some point they will equilibrate.

But this year, we have seen RSV and flu come earlier than normal. The good news with RSV is we're in some parts of the country is starting to see a slowing, if you will, of the rate of rise. And that might indicate that a peak may be coming soon. We don't know exactly when that will be, but those are some promising signs across the country.

But the bottom line is, you know, we can't let up our guard. We have to take the precautions that we need to prevent the spread of these viruses, like washing our hands, wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces, and like making sure that we're staying home if we're sick. And of course, again, with COVID and flu, please get vaccinated as soon as you can. Winter is here. Cases are high and we want people to be protected.

GMA3: What's your prediction right now? A potential COVID surge this winter, given what you're seeing right now?

MURTHY: Well, I think we have to be prepared for the fact that we will see a rise in COVID cases in some parts of the country. We're already seeing cases start to go up. But I do think that we will be in a better place than we were in the last two winters when we had surges.

And the reason I think we'll be in a better place is that we have more people who have protection, either from vaccinations or from prior infection. We also have medications like Paxlovid to treat those who are in high risk groups like the elderly.

So the bottom line is, I do think we'll be in a better position, but we need people to use these tools. And one thing that's worth underscoring is if people are up to date with their vaccines, if they've gotten especially the updated COVID-19 booster vaccine… gotten your last shot two months or out, you're now eligible to get.

If you updated your vaccines and if you reach for Paxlovid, you know, if you are in fact, in a high risk group and get sick, your chances of dying from COVID are really, really low. And so right now, we're losing between 300 to 400 people a day to COVID-19.

The most -- and most of those deaths are actually preventable if you're up to date with your vaccines, if you reach for medications like Paxlovid, if you do get sick and we want people to know about that so they can be safe.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


How FDA's forthcoming blood donor policy change could help address stigma about gay and bisexual men

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering updating its blood donation policy, which currently places some restrictions on blood donations from sexually active gay and bisexual men.

In a statement, an FDA spokesperson said, "While we can't comment on what might be in the content of the guidance, we can say that the screening policy we put forward will be gender neutral and science-based."

The announcement on Wednesday was made on the eve of World AIDS Day, a day to spread awareness of and dismantle the stigma associated with the disease.

Public health experts and advocates said relaxing restrictions doesn't only help battle stigma but could also help address future blood shortages.

"The plan for the FDA to revise its donation guidelines is absolutely a step in the right direction because what it does is it's going to move the criteria from a population-centered approach to a risk-approach," Dr. Perry Halkitis, dean of Rutgers School of Public Health whose research focuses on HIV and disparities in the LGBTQ population, told ABC News.

A ban on gay and bisexual blood donors began during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which primarily affected gay and bisexual men. The FDA banned all donations from men who have sex with men in 1985 in response to the crisis.

This restriction remained in place until 2015, when the policy was changed to allow such donors to give blood if they abstained from sex for one year. In 2020, amid severe blood shortages during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA shortened the abstinence period to 90 days.

"At the time of the initial epidemic, we had no way of identifying and testing for AIDS and HIV," Ayako Miyashita Ochoa, an adjunct professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs whose research focuses on HIV-related health disparities, told ABC News. "What radically shifted over the decades is that testing came online a long time ago, So, at the point in which we were able to identify the virus, I believe that the lifetime deferral became outdated."

If a policy change is implemented, gay and bisexual men in monogamous relationships can donate without abstaining from sex. It follows several other Western countries that have recently dropped bans or eased restrictions including the United Kingdom, France, Greece and the Netherlands.

Activists said these restrictions are based solely on identity rather than individual risk because the ban even applies to gay men who are monogamous, test HIV negative and practice safe sex.

"There is a perception that being a gay or bisexual person is in and of itself unsafe," Sarah Warbelow, the legal director at Human Rights Campaign, told ABC News. "We have to differentiate between what are behaviors that place people at risk -- and that's all people at risk --" and identity based restrictions.

"Not every gay man is the same, not every bisexual man is the same, not every straight person is the same," Halkitis added. "And so recognizing that people are -- within each population -- diverse is a much better way to assess the risks that people take and then deciding based on people's risk."

The American Red Cross and the American Medical Association have both supported a risk-based approach to donor eligibility.

The FDA said there is no “specific timeline” for the update because the agency is currently collecting and analyzing data from multiple sources. However, in a statement to ABC News, the FDA says the evidence analyzed so far will “likely support a policy transition” that focuses screening blood donations based on each person’s HIV risk.

In 2020, the FDA launched a study called ADVANCE to look into alternative solutions to its current policy. The FDA is currently reviewing research from the American Red Cross, OneBlood and Vitalant to determine if eligibility based on an individual's risk can replace the current time-based deferral system while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.

Despite the growing research on HIV/AIDS, as well as the success in tackling and treating the illness, the shame and stigma against the LGBTQ community remains.

"As LGBTQ leaders and medical experts have been saying for years: bans and restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men are rooted in stigma, not science," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD.

She continued, "Giving one set of rules to some people, and another set of rules to others, based purely on identity, is blatant discrimination. This fight is not over until all LGBTQ Americans who want to donate blood are met with the same protocols as other Americans."

Experts say the updated policy will also help address the national blood shortage and, in turn, save lives. In January 2022, the American Red Cross said it was facing its worst blood shortage in more than a decade.

A 2014 study co-authored by Miysahista Ochoa found that eliminating the ban could increase the donation supply by 2% to 4%, bringing in more than 615,000 pints of blood every year.

"That isn't a small amount," she said. "That 2 to 4% count is roughly calculated to a million lives saved."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


HIV tests dropped by one-third during COVID-19 pandemic: CDC

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(ATLANTA) -- The number of HIV tests and people diagnosed with the virus dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new federal data.

The report, published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at data from two commercial laboratories and found decreases during the first half of 2020.

Between April and June 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, about 1.68 million HIV tests were performed, a 33% decline from the 2.52 million tests performed during the same period in 2019.

As a result, fewer people were diagnosed with HIV. During the first six months of 2019, 18,919 people tested positive for HIV. By comparison, 14,666 people received an HIV diagnosis during the same six-month period of 2020.

Rebounds were seen in late 2020, but not returns to pre-pandemic levels. From October to December 2020, 2.27 million HIV tests were performed and 7,758 people received positive diagnoses.

The use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP -- a daily pill containing two medications that prevent HIV-negative patients from being infected -- saw just a slight drop in the first half of 2020.

A total of 179,280 prescriptions were written from April to June 2020, a 6% drop from January to March 2020. However, by September, the number of prescriptions had surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

"I think most people would agree that those kinds of drops are mostly attributable to the complete disruption of medical services that appeared early in the COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. Uriel Felsen, medical director for HIV testing at the Montefiore AIDS Center in New York City, told ABC News.

When cities and states across the country issued lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, this resulted in the closure of non-emergency health care services, which limited the number of HIV tests performed and number of PrEP prescriptions written, the CDC report stated.

Additionally, people fearful of contracting COVID-19 avoided doctors' offices or hospitals, where they may have received care. Also, millions of people lost health insurance after being laid off from their jobs, limiting their ability to access care.

"It's absolutely alarming that the services were disrupted this profoundly," Felsen said. "Overall, there were more missed diagnoses and the more time people go without getting tested, the more time they have to transmit HIV unbeknownst to themselves."

The authors noted that the COVID-19 public health emergency laid bare the need to deliver HIV services outside of traditional settings.

Felsen agreed and said, for example, he is part of a team at his hospital investigating a new strategy to try and improve PrEP access by prescribing it in emergency departments directly to those who are at risk.

"It has really reminded us that we need to be able to implement HIV prevention in a diverse array of settings so that, in cases where services are so extremely disrupted, people are still getting the care that they need, because the HIV epidemic didn't stop because of COVID," Felsen said.

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CDC expands polio wastewater testing to Michigan and Pennsylvania

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(NEW YORK) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday it will expand wastewater testing for polio to select communities across the U.S. after a person tested positive for the disease in New York this summer.

The initiative will start in two communities: Oakland County, Michigan, and a yet-to-be named county in the Philadelphia area.

Wastewater testing will extend to counties with low rates of polio vaccination or to counties connected to communities in New York where polio has been detected in wastewater, according to the CDC, including Rockland County, where a single case of vaccine-derived polio was detected.

On July 21, the New York State Department of Health revealed a patient in Rockland County had contracted a case of vaccine-derived polio, the first case in the United States in nearly a decade.

Since then, officials said the patient was a previously healthy 20-year-old man. He was diagnosed after he went to the hospital when he developed paralysis in his legs.

Vaccine-derived polio occurs when someone takes the oral polio vaccine, containing a weakened version of the virus.

In rare cases, oral vaccine patients can shed the virus in their stool, which can then spread through sewage and affect those who are unvaccinated.

As of Oct. 28, 89 positive wastewater samples have been collected in New York with 82 samples genetically linked to the Rockland County patient, health department data shows.

Although wastewater testing cannot provide data on how many people are infected with polio, it can tell scientists where polio is spreading and where vaccination campaigns may be needed.

"Wastewater testing can be an important tool to help us understand if poliovirus may be circulating in communities in certain circumstances," Dr. José Romero, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement.

"Vaccination remains the best way to prevent another case of paralytic polio, and it is critically important that people get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families and their communities against this devastating disease," the statement continued.

Officials have stressed the importance of getting vaccinated against or staying up to date with the immunization schedule. Among unvaccinated people, polio can lead to permanent paralysis in the arms and/or legs and even death.

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2007-2009

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