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Health Highlights: Oct. 11, 2013

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

NIH Clinical Trials Affected by Government Shutdown

Critically ill people are still being enrolled in U.S. National Institutes of Health clinical trials during the federal government shutdown, but the pace of enrollment is much slower than normal.

That means that many sick people who otherwise would be accepted into the clinical trials must wait to receive treatment.

The NIH runs more than 1,400 clinical trials at any given time. About 12 patients were enrolled between Oct. 1, the first day of the shutdown, and Oct. 8. Most of those people were cancer patients, NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles told The New York Times.

That's a much lower number than in a typical week, when about 200 new patients would be enrolled in NIH trials. About 30 of those patients would be children, a third of whom would have cancer.

Only patients at high risk of dying are being accepted in the trials during the shutdown. They still have to meet the criteria for the trial and investigators have to believe that the treatment would provide a benefit for patients, The Times reported.

No new studies are being started during the shutdown, and at least seven new clinical trials had been delayed as of Wednesday.

The government shutdown has led to significant staff reductions at the NIH with about three-quarters of its employees -- more than 13,000 people - furloughed.

The shutdown threatens public health in other ways. More than two-thirds of employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are furloughed. There are no staff members to conduct important monitoring tasks, such as tracking the flu virus or conducting genetic testing on it. That means that researchers have no data on how it is spreading or where it is most severe.

"Last flu season was early and severe," CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told The Times. "This flu season, we are not going to know."

At the Food and Drug Administration, nearly 1,000 of its approximately 1,600 investigators who keep on eye on everything from food facilities to drug makers are on furlough.

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Shutdown Threatens Food Safety

Food safety is one of the casualties of the U.S. government shutdown, experts warn.

The doors are locked at federal agencies in charge of making sure that fruit, vegetables, dairy products and a wide range of other U.S.-made food items are safe to consume.

"This is a self-inflicted wound that is putting people's health at risk," Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, told The New York Times.

Because the shutdown comes on top of earlier budget cuts to the agencies, there is "the potential for a real public health crisis," the longtime food safety advocate said.

The Food and Drug Administration, which inspects most of the food that Americans eat, has gone from a target of inspecting about 200 food plants per week to none, and has also cut back on inspections of imported food, The Times reported.

And the Agriculture Department has closed a meat and poultry hotline that consumers can call for information about food safety or to report problems.

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Ban Fighting in Hockey: Concussion Experts

Fighting at all levels of hockey should be banned, researchers at a Mayo Clinic conference on concussions said Wednesday.

They said junior and professional hockey should replace five-minute fighting penalties with automatic game ejections and suspensions. Their recommendation comes eight days after a Montreal Canadiens player was hospitalized after a fight on the opening night of the NHL season, The New York Times reported.

"Science has responded to the game on the ice," said Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame Canadiens goalie who spoke at the conference. "Now it's time for the game to respond to the science."

While no direct link has been made between fighting in hockey and long-term brain damage, there is research suggesting that fighting could lead to serious brain damage.

"You have grown men, standing on skates, punching each other in the head," said Dr. Michael Stuart, a director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center and the chief medical officer for USA Hockey, The Times reported.

"They frequently fall, their helmet may come off, maybe their arms are pinned and the opponent falls on top of them, then their head hits the ice. Those forces acting on the brain are alarmingly high," he explained.

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New Calif. Law Permits Midwives to Perform Early Abortions

A bill permitting nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform a type of early abortion has been signed by California Governor Jerry Brown.

The legislation would allow those professionals to perform aspiration abortions during the first trimester. This technique involves inserting a tube and using suction to end a pregnancy, the Associated Press reported.

The new law will help expand access to abortion services in areas of the state with few physicians, said Democratic Assemblywoman Toni Atkins of San Diego, who introduced the bill.

Nurse practitioners in Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont can perform this type of abortion, the AP reported.

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