Current Events in December 2012

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2012

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    Study questions effectiveness of coated aspirin

    Not all researchers agree that low-dose coated aspirin is the way to go

    Aspirin is an inexpensive over-the-counter medicine that people have been using for all sorts of things for more than a century. Whether it’s to lower a fever or treat pain, aspirin has been many things to many people.

    “It’s one of the best medicines we have to prevent heart attacks,” said Dr. Fernando Salazar, a Florida cardiologist in a published interview. “In the right patients, it’s a very good drug. A powerful one.”  

    Over 40 years ago doctors found if taken daily, aspirin could lower the risk of heart attack and strokes among patients.

    But not everyone in the health and prescription drug community agrees that aspirin is the lifesaving drug that many believe it is. A 2010 study published in the Drugs and Therapeutics Bulletin suggests that people have been putting too much faith in the aspirin and that it doesn’t lower heart attack and stroke risks as effectively as previously thought.

    Some have also said that aspirin’s potential to cause stomach bleeding outweighs any cardiovascular benefits it has.

    “For those who do not have heart and circulatory disease the risk of serious bleeding outweighs the potential preventative benefits of taking aspirin,” said the British Heart Foundation.

    “We advise people not to take aspirin daily, unless they check with their doctor. The best way to reduce your risk of developing this disease is to avoid smoking, eat a diet low in saturated fat and rich in fruit and vegetables and take regular physical activity.”

    Long-running debate

    The debate over the true effectiveness of aspirin as a cardiovascular drug has been going on for many years, and critics of using aspirin as a preventative medicine say that many people are resistant to it and it doesn’t work in the same way for everyone.

    But researchers in a new study said the coating on some aspirin, which is used to ease the effects of the drug on one’s stomach, is making some people resistant to the drug.

    Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined 400 people and didn’t find one person who had any level of aspirin resistance, and said it was the coating of the drug that made it seem like it was ineffective when people were previously tested.

    “When we looked for aspirin resistance using the platelet test, it detected in about one-third of our volunteers,” said Dr. Tilo Grosser, a University of Penn professor and one of the study’s researchers.

    “But when we looked a second time at the incident of aspirin resistance in the volunteers, the one-third that we measured who was now resistant was mostly different people. Nobody had a stable pattern of resistance that was specific to coated aspirin.”

    Dr. Garret FitzGerald, who also conducts research at UPenn, said these new findings bring some concern about aspirin’s coating, since it has the potential to give improper test readings when it comes to cardiovascular treatment. The researchers also found no proof that aspirin’s coating eases stomach tension.

    Value questioned

    “These studies question the value of coated, low-dose aspirin,” said FitzGerald in a statement.

    “This product adds cost to treatment, without any clear benefit. Indeed, it may lead to the false diagnosis of aspirin resistance and the failure to provide patients with an effective therapy. Our results also call into question the values of using office tests to look for such resistance.”

    Bayer, the largest aspirin manufacturer in the world helped to fund the study, but said it didn’t fully agree with UPenn’s findings questioning the effect of the coating. Bayer also said the coating even has some health benefits of its own.

    “When used as directed, both enteric (coated) and non-enteric (uncoated) aspirin provides meaningful benefits, is safe and effective, and is infrequently associated with clinically significant side effects,” said the company.

    According to statistics, one out of every five people takes aspirin everyday as a preventative medicine.

    And although many studies have confirmed the benefits of taking aspirin for heart attack and stroke prevention, health experts say you should still speak to your doctor if you plan to take it daily, especially if you have allergies to aspirin or other drugs or have problems with ulcers or internal stomach bleeding.

    Although aspirin is an inexpensive over the counter medicine, people have been using it for all sorts of things for more than a century. Whe...

    Diabetes diet programs more effective in coach-led groups

    Study compares usual programs with coach-led and in-home DVD-led

    A study of two "lifestyle intervention" diabetes prevention programs finds the programs resulted in weight loss, as well as improvements in waist circumference and fasting plasma glucose level for overweight or obese adults compared with usual care over a 15-month period.

    “Proven effective in a primary care setting, the 2 DPP-based lifestyle interventions are readily scalable and exportable with potential for substantial clinical and public health impact,” said the authors of the report of a randomized trial published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication.

    With an estimated 69 percent of U.S. adults overweight or obese, diabetes prevention is a top public health and previous studies have found that lifestyle modifications that focus on modest weight loss (5 percent to 10 percent) and moderate-intensity physical activity are associated with a reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes.

    But, the study authors said, there has been a failure to incorporate weight management into clinical practice, according to the study background.

    Jun Ma, M.D., Ph.D., of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif., and colleagues evaluated two adapted diabetes prevention program (DPP) lifestyle interventions among overweight or obese adults who were recruited from one primary care clinic and had pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or both.

    The Evaluation of Lifestyle Interventions to Treat Elevated Cardiometabolic Risk in Primary Care (E-LITE) was a primary-care based randomized trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the adapted DPP lifestyle interventions.

    Three groups

    Participants were assigned to one of three groups: a coach-led group intervention, a self-directed DVD intervention or usual care. The behavioral weight loss program was delivered during a 3-month intervention phase by a lifestyle coach or home-based DVD and then was followed by a 12-month maintenance phase, according to the study.

    The participants (47 percent of whom were women) had an average age of nearly 53 years at baseline and an average body mass index (BMI) of 32. At month 15, the average change in BMI from baseline was -2.2 in the coach-led group,-1.6 in the self-directed group and -0.9 in the usual care group.

    The percentage of participants who reached the 7 percent DPP-based weight-loss goal were 37 percent and 35.9 percent in the coach-led and self-directed groups, respectively, compared with 14.4 percent in the usual care group. Compared with the usual care group, improvements reached “statistical significance” for waist circumference and fasting plasma glucose levels in both interventions, according to the study results.

    “The E-LITE trial makes a unique contribution to this growing literature in that its interventions integrate standardized, packaged DPP translational programs (delivered in groups or by DVD) with existing health IT [information technology],” the authors conclude. “Although these intervention components and delivery channels are not new, their integration into structured interventions for use in primary care is novel.”

    A study of two "lifestyle intervention" diabetes prevention programs finds the programs resulted in weight loss, as well as improvements in waist circumfer...

    Can your iPhone help you lose weight?

    Study finds digital devices, telephone coaching can enhance weight loss

    Some things aren't much fun to do alone. Losing weight must be one of them, as a new study finds that short-term weight-loss programs are more effective with the addition of a personal digital device and telephone coaching.

    “Little is known about whether the outcome of physician-directed weight loss treatment can be improved by adding mobile technology,” the authors write in the study posted Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication. However, “self-monitoring of diet and physical activity is associated with weight loss success and can be performed conveniently using handheld devices.”

    Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., with Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and colleagues conducted a two-group 12-month study involving 69 adults from October 2007 through September 2010.

    Patients were randomly assigned to a standard care only treatment group (standard group) or to a standard treatment with mobile technology system (+mobile group). All patients attended biweekly weight loss groups held by Veterans Affairs outpatient clinics, and the +mobile group also received a personal digital assistant (PDA) to self-monitor diet and physical activity, and biweekly coaching calls for six months. Weight was measured at randomization, and at 3-, 6-, 9- and 12-month follow-up.

    Patients assigned to the +mobile group lost an average of 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds) more than the control group at each weigh-in, and the authors found no evidence that this varied across time. Specifically, weight loss among the +mobile group was greater than weight loss in the control group at three and six months, nine months and 12 months.

    Big loss

    More than 36 percent of participants in the +mobile group lost at least 5 percent of their initial body weight at three months, compared with 0 percent in the standard group, and this effect also did not vary significantly across time.

    “In sum, this study highlights the promise of a mobile technology system as a scalable, cost-effective means to augment the effectiveness of physician-directed weight loss treatment,” the authors conclude.

    “Technology offers new channels to reconfigure the provision of effective components of behavioral weight loss treatment (i.e., self-monitoring, goal setting, lifestyle counseling and in-person sessions).”

    Some things aren't much fun to do alone. Losing weight must be one of them, as a new study finds that short-term weight-loss programs are more effective wi...

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      Marijuana associated with overeating, study finds

      Attacks of the munchies are not a minor matter, researchers report

      Colorado and Washington recently became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, not just for medicinal purposes, and the weed appears to be on the road to legalization elsewhere. 

      But a new study finds that it may bring an unexpected problem with it -- binge eating. The study published Online First by Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a JAMA Network publication finds that overeating and binge eating in adolescents and young adults may be associated with the use of marijuana and other drugs.

      Kendrin R. Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., of Boston Children’s Hospital, and colleagues examined the association between overeating and binge eating  and adverse outcomes such as overweight/obesity, depressive symptoms, frequent binge drinking, marijuana use and other drug use.

      The study included 16,882 boys and girls who were 9 to 15 years old in 1996 and participated in the Growing Up Today Study. Overeating and binge eating were assessed by questionnaires every 12 to 24 months between 1996 and 2005.

      More common among women

      Binge eating was more common among females than males, with 2.3 percent to 3.1 percent of females and 0.3 percent to 1 percent of males reporting binge eating between the ages of 16 and 24, according to the study results.

      “In summary, we found that binge eating, but not overeating, predicted the onset of overweight/obesity and worsening depressive symptoms. We further observed that any overeating ... predicted the onset of marijuana and other drug use,” the authors comment.

      Binge eating is defined as eating an amount of food that is larger than most people would eat in a similar period under similar circumstances and feeling a lack of control over eating during the episode, according to the study background.

      “Given that binge eating is uniquely predictive of some adverse outcomes and because previous work has found that binge eating is amenable to intervention, clinicians should be encouraged to screen adolescents for binge eating,” the authors said.

      Colorado and Washington recently became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, not just for medicinal purposes, and the weed appears ...

      Economist questions jobs report numbers

      Government's monthly telephone surveys may miss too many cellphone-only families

      When the Labor Department reported Friday that the unemployment rate for November dropped to 7.7 percent, a lot of economists' eyebrows went up. The numbers were a big surprise.

      Anecdotal evidence suggested firms were still laying off, not hiring. Then there was Hurricane Sandy, the storm that devastated the Northeast, disrupting the normal hiring process.

      Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows the economy added 146,000 jobs for the month. Economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says the numbers were better than expected across the board.

      Big surprise

      "First, and most surprisingly, the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in nearly four years," Naroff said. "Forget the data nerd discussion about labor force declines, my issue is with the phone interviews."

      The monthly employment report is compiled much like a public opinion survey. To find out if people are employed, or looking for work, survey takers make calls to key areas across the country. Naroff has begun to question whether those surveys still accurately reflect what's happening in the job market.

      "I don't know the answer to this but it is possible that the phone survey doesn't capture enough of the cellphone-only households that may have populated the Sandy-created job losers," he said. "Thus, the survey could have underestimated the number unemployed."

      More consumers only have a cellphone

      A growing part of the population no longer has a landline. In fact, cellphone-only households tend to be made up of younger Americans, precisely the people hit hardest by the bad economy. Since survey calls are made to landline numbers, is it possible that this important segment is under-represented?

      "I have some issues with both the unemployment rate and job gains numbers," Naroff said. "If the survey does not adequately collect data from cellphone only households, the unemployment rate may have been understated."

      And in fact, the weekly "new claims for unemployment benefits," released each Thursday, suggests that's the case. As for the jobs numbers, over the next couple of months Naroff says more small to mid-sized firms will weigh in. That, he says, could result in downward revisions.

      When the Labor Department reported Friday that the unemployment rate for November dropped to 7.7 percent, a lot of economists' eyebrows went up. The number...

      NHTSA analysis: traffic fatalities down nearly two percent in 2011

      Highway deaths were at the lowest level in more than six decades -- down 26 percent since 2005

      Fewer lives were lost on the nation's highways last year as fatalities fell to 32,367. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that was a 1.9 percent decrease from the 2010 and the lowest level since 1949.

      The updated 2011 data show the historic downward trend in recent years continued through last year and represent a 26 percent decline in traffic fatalities overall since 2005.

      "The latest numbers show how the tireless work of our safety agencies and partners, coupled with significant advances in technology and continued public education, can really make a difference on our roadways," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "As we look to the future, it will be more important than ever to build on this progress by continuing to tackle head-on issues like seat belt use, drunk driving, and driver distraction."

      Record low fatality rate

      While Americans drove fewer miles in 2011 than in 2010, the nearly two percent drop in roadway deaths significantly outpaced the corresponding 1.2 percent decrease in vehicle miles traveled. In addition, updated Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) information shows 2011 also saw the lowest fatality rate ever recorded, with 1.10 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2011, down from 1.11 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2010.

      Other key statistics include:

      • Fatalities declined by 4.6 percent for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups).
      • Deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers dropped 2.5 percent in 2011, taking 9,878 lives compared to 10,136 in 2010.
      • Fatalities increased among large truck occupants (20 percent), pedalcyclists (8.7 percent), pedestrians (3.0 percent), and motorcycle riders (2.1 percent). NHTSA is working with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to gather more detailed information on the large truck occupant crashes to better understand the increase in fatalities in 2011.
      • The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes rose to 3,331 in 2011 from 3,267 in 2010, an increase of 1.9 percent. NHTSA believes this increase can be attributed in part to increased awareness and reporting.

      An estimated 387,000 people were injured in distraction-affected crashes, a seven percent decline from the estimated 416,000 people injured in such crashes in 2010. Thirty-six states experienced reductions in overall traffic fatalities, led by Connecticut (100 fewer fatalities), North Carolina (93 fewer), Tennessee (86 fewer), Ohio (64 fewer) and Michigan (53 fewer).

      "In the past several decades, we've seen remarkable improvements in both the way motorists behave on our roadways and in the safety of the vehicles they drive, and we're confident that NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings Program and nationwide collaborations like ‘Click It or Ticket' and ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over' have played a key role in making our roads safer," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "Even as we celebrate the progress we've made in recent years, we must remain focused on addressing the safety issues that are continuing to claim more than 30,000 lives each year."

      Fewer lives were lost on the nation's highways last year as fatalities fell to 32,367. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT...

      Looking for a job? Here are your best bets -- if you're qualified

      Technology and engineering are way up on the list, but there are other opportunities, too

      Is finding a job on your list of New Year's resolutions?

      If so, here's a rundown -- compliments of CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists (EMSI) -- of the the best bachelor degree jobs for 2013 based on occupations with the most jobs added since 2010. The study uses EMSI's labor market database, which pulls from over 90 national and state employment resources and includes detailed information on employees and self-employed workers.

      "Where the U.S. will produce the most jobs in 2013 is likely to follow growth patterns of the last few years," said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. "It's no surprise that technology and engineering occupations comprise six of the top ten positions on our list, but workers should also see more opportunities in production-related fields, marketing, healthcare and financial services. The competition for educated, specialized labor has intensified as market demands increase in both the manufacturing and services sectors."

      The positions

      Occupations requiring bachelor degrees that have produced the most jobs post-recession include the following:

      Software Developers (Applications and Systems Software)

      • 70,872 jobs added since 2010, 7% growth

      Accountants and Auditors

      • 37,123 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

      Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists

      • 31,335 jobs added since 2010, 10% growth

      Computer Systems Analysts

      • 26,937 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

      Human Resources, Training and Labor Relations Specialists

      • 22,773 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

      Network and Computer Systems Administrators

      • 18,626 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

      Sales Representatives (Wholesale and Manufacturing, Technical and Scientific)

      • 17,405 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

      Information Security Analysts, Web Developers and Computer Network Architects

      • 15,715 jobs added since 2010, 5% growth

      Mechanical Engineers

      • 13,847 jobs added since 2010, 6% growth

      Industrial Engineers

      • 12,269 jobs added since 2010, 6% growth

      Computer Programmers

      • 11,540 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

      Financial Analysts

      • 10,016 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

      Public Relations Specialists

      • 8,541 jobs added since 2010, 4% growth

      Logisticians

      • 8,522 jobs added since 2010, 8% growth

      Database Administrators

      • 7,468 jobs added since 2010, 7% growth

      Meeting, Convention and Event Planners

      • 7,072 jobs added since 2010, 10% growth

      Cost Estimators

      • 6,781 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

      Personal Financial Advisors

      • 5,212 jobs added since 2010, 3% growth

      Is finding a job on your list of New Year's resolutions? If so, here's a rundown -- compliments of CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists (EMSI...

      A new way to battle leukemia

      Pennsylvania researchers genetically engineer T cells to kill cancer cells

      At one time, the diagnosis of leukemia was a death sentence. Recent medical advances have improved the odds of survival but this form of cancer is still a deadly disease that claims many lives.

      Now there's an inspiring and hopeful story from Philadelphia where doctors tried an experimental treatment on 12 leukemia patients with very promising results. Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania medical school extracted T cells from the 12 patients, genetically engineered them to attack cancer cells, and injected them back into the patients.

      The clinical trial participants, all of whom had advanced cancers, included 10 adult patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and two children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Two of the first three patients treated with the protocol remain healthy and in full remissions more than two years after their treatment, with the engineered cells still circulating in their bodies.

      Great promise

      "Our results show that chimeric antigen receptor modified T cells have great promise to improve the treatment of leukemia and lymphoma," said the trial's leader, Carl June, M.D. "It is possible that in the future, this approach may reduce or replace the need for bone marrow transplantation."

      T cells are a type of white blood cell that plays a role in the immunity process. Researchers involved in the genetic modification experiments believe the new treatment has the potential to completely change the way blood cancers are treated. They may also believe they will vastly improve survival rates.

      One of the 12 patients, a young girl, was featured on a national news broadcast Sunday night. She is one of the cases that is in full remission after two years and her physicians have found no trace of cancer in her body.

      Some side effects

      In the patients who experienced complete remissions after treatment, the re-engineered T cells grew after infusion, with the most robust expansion activity usually occurring between 10 and 31 days after infusion. There were side effects, marked by fever, nausea, hypoxia and low blood pressure, which doctors treated when needed. But over time, the modified T cell treatment eradicated large amounts of tumor in these patients, doctors say.

      Tests of patients with complete responses also show that normal B cells have been eliminated along with their tumors. Since these cells are important for the body's immune system to fight infection, the patients now are receiving regular gamma globulin treatments as a preventive measure. No unusual infections have been observed.

      What's next? The University of Pennsylvania has reached agreement with Novartis for the rights to the treatment. Penn and Novartis will collaborate in building a Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies (CACT) in Philadelphia that will be devoted to the new therapy.

      At one time, the diagnosis of leukemia was a death sentence. Recent medical advances have improved the odds of survival but this form of cancer is still a ...

      New program aims to corral contaminated meat

      The new initiative could reduce recalls significantly

      A new round of testing is about to be implemented for non-intact raw beef and all ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry.

      After the first of the year the Agriculture Department's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will require producers to hold shipments of such products until they pass agency testing for foodborne adulterants.

      "This new policy will reduce foodborne illnesses and the number of recalls by preventing contaminated products from reaching consumers," USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. "Many producers hold products until test results come back. We're encouraging others in the industry to make this a routine part of operations."

      Release pending results

      The new policy requires official establishments and importers of record to maintain control of products tested for adulterants by FSIS and not allow the products to enter commerce until negative test results are received. FSIS anticipates most negative test results will be determined within two days.

      The policy applies to non-intact raw beef products or intact raw beef products intended for non-intact use and that are tested by FSIS for Shiga-toxin producing Escherichia coli. Also, the policy applies to any ready-to-eat products tested by FSIS for pathogens.

      FSIS developed the "hold and test" policy, which will reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, based on public comment and input received on a Federal Register notice published in April 2011.

      FSIS estimates if this new requirement had been in place between 2007 through 2010, 49 of the 251 meat, poultry and processed egg product recalls that occurred during that time could have been prevented.

      One of many

      Other actions taken by the USDA include:

      • Zero-tolerance policy for non-O157:H7 STECs. On June 4, 2012, FSIS began routinely testing raw beef manufacturing trim for six strains of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) serogroups. Trim found to be contaminated with these pathogens -- which can cause severe illness and even death -- will not be allowed into commerce and will be subject to recall.
      • Labeling requirements that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition information for single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and ground or chopped products.
      • Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database with information on public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.
      • Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.

      A new round of testing is about to be implemented for non-intact raw beef and all ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry. After the first of t...

      How a cat parasite can affect your brain

      Secreted substance reduces fear, increases risk-taking

      Earlier this year researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggested a parasite associated with cats might raise the suicide risk of women who live with the animals as pets.

      The parasite, the researchers found, was spread through contact with cat feces as well as eating undercooked meat or unwashed vegetable. Now, in a follow-up, Swedish researchers believe they know how the parasite enters the brain and influences the behavior of its victim.

      “We believe that this knowledge may be important for the further understanding of complex interactions in some major public health issues, that modern science still hasn't been able to explain fully", said Antonio Barragan, researcher at the Center for Infectious Medicine at Karolinska Institutet and the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control. "At the same time, it's important to emphasize that humans have lived with this parasite for many millennia, so today's carriers of Toxoplasma need not be particularly worried."

      Nothing new

      In other words, the parasite is widespread and has been for a long time. Yes, cleaning a cat's litter box may bring you in contact with it but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to harm yourself.

      The current study, which is published in the scientific journal PLoS Pathogens, suggests between 30 and 50 per cent of the global population is infected. The infection is also found in animals -- especially domestic cats.

      People contract the parasite mostly by eating the poorly cooked meat from infected animals or through close-up contact with cats. The infection causes mild flu-like symptoms in adults and otherwise healthy people before entering a chronic and dormant phase, which has previously been regarded as symptom-free.

      It is, however, known that toxoplasmosis in the brain can be fatal in people with depleted immune defense and in fetuses, which can be infected through the mother. Because of this risk, pregnant women are recommended to avoid contact with cat litter boxes.

      Even dangerous while dormant

      Other studies have shown that the toxoplasmosis parasite can affect the victim even during the dormant phase. It has, for example, already been observed that rats become unafraid of cats and even attracted by their scent, which makes them easy prey. And here it gets a little creepy -- almost like a science fiction movie.

      Some scientists believe this is the parasite's way of assuring its survival and propagation, since the consumed rat then infects the cat, which through its feces can infect the food that other rats might then proceed to eat. A number of studies also confirm that mental diseases like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety syndrome are more common in people with toxoplasmosis, while others suggest that toxoplasmosis can influence how extroverted, aggressive or risk-inclined an individual's behavior is.

      "We've not looked at behavioral changes in people infected with toxoplasma, as that's been dealt with by previous studies," Barragan said. "Instead, we've shown for the first time how the parasite behaves in the body of its host, by which I mean how it enters the brain and manipulates the host by taking over one of the brain's neurotransmitters."

      Reduces fear

      In one laboratory experiment, human cells infected with toxoplasma secreted what's known as a “signal substance.” Among its effects is reducing the sensation of fear and anxiety. It's similar to the effects seen in people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar diseases, anxiety syndrome and other mental diseases.

      Battagan says the findings convince him that scientists should closely study the link the toxoplasmosis parasite and major public health threats.

      Earlier this year researchers writing in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggested a parasite associated with cats might raise the suicide risk of women...

      A dozen dynamic holiday shopping tips

      Save yourself some time, aggravation -- and money

      The holiday shopping season is now in full swing. I fact, a lot of us may have already finished purchasing gifts. But for those who haven't, here are a dozen practical tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to help you watch your wallet, shop wisely and protect your personal information.

      1. Make a shopping list and check it twice. Make sure your budget includes incidentals like cards, wrapping paper, parking, or eating out.
      2. Consider customer reviews carefully. The law says reviewers should disclose their connection to a company, but not all of them do. Before you buy anything based on a review, search online for information from sources you trust. Compare reviews from a variety of websites.
      3. If you use mobile apps to shop for deals, be aware of how the apps are paid for, what information they may gather from your device, or who gets that information.
      4. Giving jewelry? Take some time to learn the terms used in the industry so you can get the best quality and value.
      5. Make sure the scanned price is right. Overcharges cost you money and time, especially if you don’t notice them right away.
      6. Save every receipt. When you’re shopping online, keep copies of your order number, the refund and return policies, shipping costs and warranties.
      7. Free can be costly. Screen savers, e-cards, or other free seasonal downloads can carry viruses. Keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and your firewall, current.
      8. Billed for merchandise that wasn’t received? Here’s what to do  if you get a bill for merchandise that you -- or your Aunt Colleen -- never received.
      9. Treat a gift card like cash. If it’s lost or stolen, you may be out the whole amount. Report it to the issuer right away.
      10. If you’re shopping “green,” online or off, examine product claims carefully.
      11. Be stingy when it comes to sharing your personal information. Don’t give out your credit card or other financial information for a chance at the newest tech toy, free gift card, seasonal job or holiday vacation rental.
      12. Tis the season to be wary, especially of charities that don’t -- or won’t -- provide key information in writing. Look for their mission statement, costs and where the money goes.

      The holiday shopping season is now in full swing. I fact, a lot of us may have already finished purchasing gifts. But for those who haven't, here are a doz...

      Pacemaker for the brain being tested as Alzheimer’s treatment

      The devices provide deep-brain stimulation and are already used in Parkinson's patients

      A pacemaker implanted in a patient's heart is designed to keep the heart beating regularly. So, what if you implanted a similar device in the brain? Could it protect it from cognitive decline?

      Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine believe it would. Last month they surgically implanted a pacemaker-like device into the brain of a patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

      The device provides deep brain stimulation and has been used in thousands of people with Parkinson’s disease. Doctors are hoping it could be a way to boost memory and reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, a growing health threat as the baby boom generation ages.

      Drug treatments

      Alzheimer’s disease has been the focus of intense research in the last decade, with most efforts focusing on drug treatments. But many of these drugs have yielded disappointing results in clinical trials so far.

      The use of low-voltage charges to stimulate the brain is an entirely new approach that researchers believe could hold promise.

      As part of a preliminary safety study in 2010, the devices were implanted in six Alzheimer’s disease patients in Canada. Researchers found that patients with mild Alzheimer’s showed indications of increased brain activity over a 13-month period.

      Most Alzheimer’s disease patients show decreases in brain activity over the same period.

      The first U.S. patient in the new trial underwent surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a second patient is scheduled for the same procedure this month.

      Alternative strategies

      “Recent failures in Alzheimer’s disease trials using drugs such as those designed to reduce the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in the brain have sharpened the need for alternative strategies,” said Paul B. Rosenberg, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This is a very different approach, whereby we are trying to enhance the function of the brain mechanically. It’s a whole new avenue for potential treatment for a disease becoming all the more common with the aging of the population.”

      Some 40 patients are expected to receive the deep brain stimulation implant over the next year or so. Only patients whose cognitive impairment is mild enough that they can decide on their own to participate will be included in the trial.

      One reason researchers are hopeful is the success the procedure has already achieved with Parkinson’s disease patients. More than 80,000 Parkinson’s patients have undergone the procedure over the past 15 years, with many reporting fewer tremors and requiring lower doses of medication afterward.

      A pacemaker implanted in a patient's heart is designed to keep the heart beating regularly. So, what if you implanted a similar device in the brain? Could ...

      Is a bad gift better than a gift card?

      Sometimes -- but not always -- it really is the thought that counts

      When it comes to gifts, some people are just hard to shop for. That's probably a big reason why gift cards have become so popular in recent years. Rather than risk giving someone a "bad" gift, the giver opts for a gift card.

      But before you run out and buy a gift card for that person on your list, Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel would like to persuade you that it would be better to give a bad gift. Gift cards, he says, are just an easy way out.

      "To avoid giving bad gifts, people have turned more and more to gift cards," Gimbel said. "More stylish than the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic versions are gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does this really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No."

      Remember why you're giving a gift

      Why? Gimbel says you need to remember why you're giving a gift in the first place. People are often fearful that despite their good intentions, a the recipient will be disappointed with their gift, so they opt instead to buy a gift card with a predetermined monetary value that allows the recipient to "get what they want."

      "Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift," Gimbel said. "A good gift is also something that the recipient will use to make their life better and something someone wants. There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, 'How did you know?' A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy."

      Give it a shot

      Gimbel's advice? Try to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up to be a bad one.

      "A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

      Gimbel says a gift card sends the wrong message -- it's about the giver, not the recipient. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you -- even if the people close to you do not really know you.

      On the other hand ...

      Dr. Gimbel's advice notwithstanding, there are quite a few people who actually want gift cards -- college students and other young adults, for example. Their tastes are so specific, and probably so different from the gift-giver's, that a gift card enables them to get something they really, really need. Or really, really want, which isn't quite the same thing, but close enough.

      In which case, take note of research released by Bankrate.com last month, which found that store-branded gift cards charge fewer fees than the all-purpose versions issued by banks and credit card companies. Of the 55 widely-held store-branded gift cards that Bankrate examined in its 2012 Gift Card Survey, only nine percent charge a purchase fee and only two percent charge a dormancy or maintenance fee.

      A range of fees

      Bankrate surveyed eight prominent gift cards offered by banks and credit card companies and all of them charge a purchase fee ranging from $2.95 to $6.95. Seventy-five percent charge a dormancy or maintenance fee (up to $3 per month) if the card is unused for 12 or more months.

      "The key takeaway for consumers is that they're going to get the most value from store-branded gift cards," said Janna Herron, credit card analyst, Bankrate.com. "The benefit of general-purpose cards offered by banks and credit card companies is that they can be used anywhere, but because of the fees, you would be better off giving cash."

      Banks and credit card companies are more likely to charge fees because they need to generate revenue for their gift card businesses. Retailers, in contrast, are less dependent on those fees since the money on the card will be used for goods and services at their stores.

      Additional findings

      • Federal rules require gift cards to stay open for at least five years. Ninety-five percent of the cards that Bankrate surveyed do not have an expiration date.
      • Six retailers that offered reloadable gift cards last year discontinued those offerings, while three others began offering reloadable gift cards this year. At present, 51% of the gift cards that Bankrate surveyed can be reloaded.
      • Whereas electronic gift card (e-card) availability rose sharply from 2010 to 2011, the trend over the past year was essentially flat. Two retailers added e-cards and one discontinued its offering. In all, just over half of the issuers that Bankrate surveyed offer e-cards, about the same as last year.
      • Two-thirds of gift card issuers will replace the card and/or funds in the event of loss or theft.

      When it comes to gifts, some people are just hard to shop for. That's probably a big reason why gift cards have become so popular in recent years. Rather t...

      A cure for diabetes? Be skeptical

      Advertising isn't a substitute for science. Be wary of claims about diabetes break-throughs

      Type 2 diabetes, along with heart disease and cancer, seems to be a curse of civilization, increasing rapidly in many industrialized nations, with diagnosed cases increasing by 100 percent or more in 18 states between 1995 and 2010, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

      Both types of diabetes have a genetic component. What triggers the development of type 1 is not fully understood while type 2 diabetes is often associated at least partly with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

      It's type 2 diabetes -- too much glucose in the bloodstream -- that has been increasing at such an alarming rate in recent years, marching along in tandem with the incidence of overweight and obesity and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle found in developed countries.

      So, if that's the cause of diabetes, it should be easy to find a cure, right? Unfortunately, no. Someone once compared type 2 diabetes to a car wreck -- once it happens, the resulting injuries can treated but the only complete  cure is to avoid the accident in the first place.

      Reducing weight through exercise and a healthy diet can often reduce the severity of type 2 diabetes and even enable some people to return to more normal glucose levels. In more severe cases, it is sometimes possible to nudge type 2 diabetes into remission through weight-loss surgery, a drastic step but one that is sometimes the most effective option for the morbidly obese.

      However, it's important to note that a remission is not a cure. If the patient regains the weight, as many do, the diabetes is likely to return.

      Potential type 1 cures

      Researchers are developing and testing many potential cures for both types of diabetes, including stem cell therapy, which could theoretically be used to build new pancreatic cells that would generate and control insulin for those with type 1 diabetes.

      But while stem cells may hold the key to treating many types of illness, there is still no proven method for implanting them in humans, so any cure involving stem cells is far from imminent.

      Islet cell transplantation can improve the quality of life for patients with type 1 diabetes, by enabling the pancreas to produce and regulate insulin more effectively but while it may improve quality of life, it is not yet regarded as a cure.

      Type 2

      But while stem cells and islet cell transplants are seen as potential cures for type 1 diabetes, there is still no cure on the horizon for type 2 diabetes, which is why prevention is so important and why public health officials are so alarmed at the virulent spread of type 2 diabetes.

      The Internet is full of ads and bogus news stories about "natural" and "secret" cures for diabetes -- the types of claims we hear about every chronic disease, often using phrases like "the diabetes cure they don't want you to know about."

      Such claims can cause consumers to pursue phony treatments that may leave them worse off than when they started -- while also draining their bank accounts.

      "I keep receiving bill for a book. I already paid for a book called 30 Day Diabetes Cure with a check that was cashed by Bottom Line Books," said Marjorie of Greenville, N.C., in a recent posting to ConsumerAffairs.

      Even cookware manufacturers have been known to claim that using their pots and pans will somehow prevent or cure diabetes. Rena Ware International, Inc., agreed to pay more than $600,000 a few years ago to settle claims by the California attorney general that it "made fraudulent and unethical claims" that its high-priced cookware could cure diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

      A good rule of thumb is to immediately dismiss any claims -- about anything -- that supposedly reveal a "secret" known only to a handful of insiders. While the CIA may still have a few secrets up its sleeve, the truth is that very few things are secret in today's wide-open world of information, misinformation and disinformation.

      Rest assured, if anyone develops a cure for diabetes, scientists, public health officials, the government, the press and the health insurance companies that now pay billions to treat diabetes will be quick to publicize it.

      "Natural" cures

      Consumers should also be cautious of claims made by nutrition supplement peddlers and those who say there are "natural" cures for diabetes and other diseases.

      There is a natural prevention for type 2 diabetes -- maintaining a good diet, keeping weight to a healthy level and exercising regularly. While this may not be 100 percent effective, most experts agree it would prevent millions of new cases of type 2 diabetes.

      Will adding a few magnesium and chromium supplements to your diet prevent or cure diabetes? Not likely.

      While vitamin and mineral supplements may contribute to overall health, it's important to talk with your doctor before taking any supplement. Many can conflict with prescription medications or aggravate existing health conditions.

      Misinformation

      The Internet has arguably done a few good things for humanity but enabling  the spread of false and misleading health information is not one of them. There are many sources of sound information, including the American Diabetes Association website and sites operated by major medical centers, like the Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center.

      However, it's important to remember that all health information pubished in books, on websites and elsewhere is general in nature. Only your doctor can apply general information to your particular situation.

      It's worth noting that taking the steps recommended to prevent or treat diabetes -- a heathy diet, regular exercise, limited or no use of alcohol -- can also contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and many other health problems.

      Sitting in a chair reading fraudulent claims on the Internet isn't nearly as good as taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood.

      Type 2 diabetes, along with heart disease and cancer, seems to be the curse of civilization, increasing rapidly in many industrialized nations.  Unlik...

      T-Mobile gets the iPhone, ends phone subsidies

      AT&T customers with "unlocked" phones can switch and save money, T-Mobile says

      T-Mobile is finally getting the iPhone, and it's shaking up the smartphone market by announciing that it will stop subsidizing the phones it sells to its customers. T-Mobile also announced network upgrades in several key markets.

      Cell phone companies have traditionally built part of the cost of the phones they sell into the monthly fee customers pay on a two- or three-year contract. This makes the phone seem more affordable but raises the monthly bill.

      Under T-Mobile's plan, customers can either pay full price for the phone upfront, which can be as much as $800 for an iPhone, or buy the phone on an installment plan with a down payment plus 20 month of interest-free payments.

      So how is this different from subsidizing the phone purchase? T-Mobile says its monthly plans will cost less because they won't have the phone subsidy built in and that even customers who finance the phones over 20 months will have lower payments than those who get the same phone from AT&T or Verizon.

      T-Mobile is calling this "Value Pricing" and other companies worldwide are adopting similar plans, although other U.S. carriers have been slow to do so.

      T-Mobile has for quite some time offered service to customers who own their own phones. It was the first carrier to offer service when Google introduced its "unlocked" Nexus phones. 

      The addition of the iPhone may fill a gap in T-Mobile's line-up. It has been the only major carrier not offering the popular phone. 

      Network build-outs

      T-Mobile also says it's sprucing up its network in time for the holidays.

      Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said new performance-enhancing technology has been installed in 10 additional metro areas, including Miami; Phoenix; San Francisco; Mesa and Tucson, Ariz.; Modesto, Oakland, San Jose and Stockton, Calif.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

      He said customers in those areas "will benefit from enhanced voice and data coverage, and faster speeds on unlocked devices to connect with friends and family."

      The advancements will also boost the performance of unlocked AT&T smartphones in those areas, Ray said.

      "Customers in these metro areas can also bring their unlocked AT&T smartphones to T-Mobile, and experience a significant speed boost on our 4G network, while also saving up to $50/month compared to AT&T,* he said.

      T-Mobile has long offered service to AT&T customers who want to unlock their phones but data speeds are sometimes suffered because the companies use different frequencies in some areas.

      T-Mobile is finally getting the iPhone, and it's shaking up the smartphone market by announciing that it will stop subsidizing the phones it sells to its c...

      Lesson learned: don't keep important files on a flash drive

      A reporter faces the loss of important data and sees the error of his ways

      It's a modern nightmare. I had stopped at a 7-11 in Fredericksburg, Va., Wednesday on my way to meet a colleague for lunch. As I was getting back in my car my cellphone rang.

      As I retrieved it from my pocket I thought I heard something hit the asphalt parking lot. I looked, saw nothing, continued my conversation and then resumed my journey. Hours later I realized my 64 GB flash drive was not in my pocket where it was supposed to be.

      A 64 GB flash drive holds a lot of data and I had put a lot on it, transferring things from one computer to the next. Then I got lazy and started using the drive for storage, meaning I didn't always back up files to other computers, a huge no-no. Worse still, some of the files on the drive were financially sensitive, another taboo.

      Violating my own rules

      I've written a number of articles about data breaches and have urged consumers to be careful with their data and I had violated nearly all the rules. Not willingly, of course. I had meant to clean up the drive but somehow just never got around to it. Then suddenly, I lost my opportunity.

      Returning to the 7-11 hours after my first visit I held out little hope the flash drive would still be where it fell. There was even a young employee sweeping the driveway and he said he was sure he hadn't swept up a flash drive.

      That evening I changed passwords and accepted the fact that many original files were lost. But the next morning there was an email from Chris, a computer science student at Germanna Community College, who had found the drive, taken it home and repaired it after a car had run over it. By the end of the day, it was back in my possession.

      Better lucky than good

      Mine was an extremely humbling experience but in the end, I got very lucky. However, you can't count on luck.

      Besides the mistake of storing original and sensitive files on the drive the other mistake I made was carrying it in a pocket. These things are small and it's a sure way to lose them.

      Instead, if I continue to use a flash drive I will use some type of accessory to secure it. One of the most common accessories is a key chain attachment. The drive stays on your key ring, and as long as you don't lose your keys you probably won't lose the flash drive.

      If a drive contains sensitive data, it should also be password protected. You can use encryption software or you can buy an encrypted flash drive.

      But finding ways not to use a flash drive may be the most prudent course of action. A service called Dropbox, for example, allows you to store files in the cloud and sync up all your devices, so files are available on your desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. There are other similar services.

      Carrying a flash drive in a secure way, password protecting it and not keeping original or sensitive data on it is the way to sleep at night. Lesson learned.

      It's a modern nightmare. I had stopped at a 7-11 in Fredericksburg, Va., Wednesday on my way to meet a colleague for lunch. As I was getting back in my car...

      USDA unveils new poultry product safety initiative

      Accounting for Salmonella outbreaks is high in the list of priorities

      The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is about to implement new steps designed to improve the food safety plans required for companies that produce poultry products.

      Companies producing raw ground chicken and turkey and similar products will be required to reassess their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans. The HACCP reassessment, which establishments must conduct in the next 90 days, must account for several Salmonella outbreaks that were associated with those types of products.

      "HACCP reassessments improve a company's ability to identify hazards and better prevent foodborne illness," said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. "Incorporating information obtained from Salmonella outbreaks will enhance food safety efforts, helping to avoid future outbreaks and ensure a safer food supply for consumers."

      Numerous changes

      The FSIS also will:

      • Expand the Salmonella verification sampling program to include other raw comminuted poultry products -- products that are reduced to small, fine particles -- in addition to ground product;
      • Increase the sample size for laboratory analysis from 25 grams to 325 grams to provide consistency as the Agency moves toward analyzing samples for Salmonella and Campylobacter; and,
      • Conduct sampling to determine the prevalence of Salmonella in not-ready-to-eat comminuted poultry products and use the results to develop new performance standards for those products.

      The announcements mark the latest public health measures FSIS has put in place to safeguard the food supply, prevent foodborne illness and improve consumers' knowledge about the food they eat.

      Other actions taken by the USDA include:

      • Zero-tolerance policy for non-O157:H7 STECs. On June 4, 2012, FSIS began routinely testing raw beef manufacturing trim for six strains of non-O157:H7 Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) serogroups. Trim found to be contaminated with these pathogens, which can cause severe illness and even death, will not be allowed into commerce and will be subject to recall.
      • Labeling requirements that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition information for single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and ground or chopped products.
      • Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database with information on public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.
      • Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.

      The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is about to implement new steps designed to improve the food safety plans required for companies that produce...

      States warn consumers to watch out for scams

      New schemes surface in Illinois, Iowa and Connecticut

      A number of scams have begun popping up in various states, prompting officials to warn consumers to keep their guard up. While the scams are appearing in specific states, there's no reason to think they won't be duplicated elsewhere.

      In Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) have alerted utility customers in the Chicago area that someone claiming to be a utility employee asks for immediate payment of a bill either at a customer’s door, over the telephone or by e-mail.

      The ICC has received complaints from utility customers about scammers claiming to be utility representatives, telling customers that their service will be disconnected unless payment is made directly to the scammers.

      Slam the door

      “If someone appears at your door claiming to be from your utility company and asking for immediate payment of your bill, I would slam the door in their face, call the police and contact your utility company directly. Utility companies do not go door-to-door collecting payments,” Madigan said.

      The scam has also reportedly surfaced in neighboring Iowa. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says MidAmerican Energy last month reported a phone scam in the Des Moines area, where someone who claimed to represent MidAmerican contacted several customers claiming they needed to make an immediate payment to avoid disconnection.

      Alliant Energy customers were also hit with the same scheme. In both cases the victims were asked to pay with a pre-paid debit card.

      “Never give financial or personal information over the phone or through email, unless you’re the one who initiated the conversation and you know who you’re dealing with,” said Miller. “If someone calls you out of the blue and demands immediate payment or requests personal information, hang up.”

      Phony sweepstakes

      Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen is warning residents of his state about a postal scam involving a phony sweepstakes accompanied by fake checks purporting to be from the Connecticut Department of Social Services.

      Typically the award notification arrives in an envelope stamped in another state, or another country. The notification instructs the “winner” to deposit the fraudulent check into his bank account and immediately withdraw money to wire under the pretense that the wire transfer will cover administrative fees or taxes on the purported winnings. The “check” eventually bounces and the consumer is out the full amount, including the money wired to the scammers.

      “While the check may look real, it is fraudulent and should not be deposited,” said Jepsen. “This scheme is the latest variation on the check overpayment and money-wiring scams that have plagued consumers in recent years.”

      If you don't happen to live in Illinois, Iowa or Connecticut, don't be lulled into thinking you won't be exposed to these scams. If experience is any guide, scams that work in one place generally show up everywhere, eventually.

      A number of scams have begun popping up in various states, prompting officials to warn consumers to keep their guard up. While the scams are appearing in s...

      California sues Delta Airlines over privacy issues

      Airline is required to post a privacy policy for its Fly Delta app

      The state of California is suing Delta Airlines, the first legal action taken under the state's online privacy law. The airline was cited for failing to conspicuously post a privacy policy within its mobile app, informing users of what personally identifiable information is being collected and what will be done with it.

      “Losing your personal privacy should not be the cost of using mobile apps, but all too often it is,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “California law is clear that mobile apps collecting personal information need privacy policies, and that the users of those apps deserve to know what is being done with their personal information.”

      Privacy policy now required

      The California Online Privacy Protection Act is a law requiring commercial operators of Websites and online services, including mobile and social apps, to inform California users of what information about them is being collected and how it will be used. Privacy policies promote transparency in how companies collect, use, and share personal information.

      If developers do not comply with their stated privacy policies, they can be prosecuted under California’s Unfair Competition Law and/or False Advertising Law.

      The lawsuit claims that since at least 2010, Delta has operated a mobile app called “Fly Delta” for use on smartphones and other electronic devices.

      The Fly Delta app may be used to check-in online for an airplane flight, view reservations for air travel, rebook cancelled or missed flights, pay for checked baggage, track checked baggage, access a user’s frequent flyer account, take photographs and even save a user’s geo-location.

      Privacy policy never posted

      Despite collecting substantial personally identifiable information such as a user’s full name, telephone number, email address, frequent flyer account number and pin code, photographs and geo-location, the suit says the Fly Delta application does not have a privacy policy.

      The suit seeks to stop Delta from distributing its app without a privacy policy and penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation.

      The suit follows an agreement Harris forged among the seven leading mobile and social app platforms to improve privacy protections for millions of users around the globe who use apps on their smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. Those platforms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Research in Motion – agreed to privacy principles designed to bring the industry in line with California law requiring mobile apps that collect personal information to have a privacy policy.

      The agreement allows consumers the opportunity to review an app’s privacy policy before they download the app rather than after, and offers consumers a consistent location for an app’s privacy policy on the application-download screen in the platform store.

      The state of California is suing Delta Airlines, the first legal action taken under the state's online privacy law. The airline was cited for failing to co...

      How to prevent holiday decoration fires and injuries

      Following a few simple tips can keep the holidays from turning into tragedy

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal are teaming up in hopes of helping consumers give the gift of a safe holiday home.

      Each November and December, thousands of consumers are injured and millions of dollars in property losses are reported as a result of falls, fires, and other incidents associated with holiday decorations.

      Injuries on the rise

      Since 2009, the estimated number of holiday decoration-related injuries has increased at a rate of 1,000 per year -- from 12,000 in 2009, to 13,000 in 2010, to 14,000 in 2011. Between 2008 and 2010, property losses from Christmas tree fires have increased from an estimated $18 million -- to $19 million. Candle-related fires during this same period resulted in reports of 74 deaths and $347 million in property losses.

      “Make sure you water your Christmas tree frequently, use holiday lights that are tested and certified and safe and not damaged, use candles carefully, and do not put a frozen turkey into a deep fryer,” said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “We want consumers to avoid fires and injuries by adding “safety” to their holiday checklist.”

      Common incident scenarios involve fires from dried-out evergreen trees and clippings, burns from open-flame candles and falls while attempting to hang holiday decorations. CPSC has several safety tips to help prevent these and other incidents this season.

      “Christmas and the days around it are typically some of the top days for home fires,” said Greg Cade, division director of Government Affairs for NFPA. “With an increased fire risk around winter holidays, following safety tips at this time of year is especially important to prevent fires.”

      “Holidays are a time of celebration with family and friends,” stated Maryland State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard. “However, fire and life safety is everyone’s responsibility; by testing smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, keeping exits clear of obstructions, monitoring water levels for live trees, staying with food while it is cooking, and following basic safety guidelines involving open flame devices such as candles and fireplaces, we can all avoid injury or death from fire.”

      Safety tips

      Trees and Decorations

      • Buying live trees? Check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, its needles are hard to pull from branches, and its needles do not break when bent between your fingers. The bottom of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
      • Setting up a tree at home? Place it away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, vents, and radiators. Because heated rooms dry out live trees rapidly, be sure to monitor water levels daily, and keep the tree stand filled with water. Place the tree out of the way of foot traffic, and do not block doorways with the tree.
      • Buying an artificial tree? Look for the label: “Fire Resistant.” Although this label does not mean that the tree will not catch fire, it does indicate that the tree is more resistant to catching fire.
      • Decorating a tree in homes with small children? Take special care to avoid sharp, weighted, or breakable decorations. Keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children, who could swallow or inhale small pieces. Avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them.

      Candles

      • Keep burning candles within sight. Extinguish all candles before you go to bed, leave the room, or leave the house.
      • Keep candles on a stable, heat-resistant surface where kids and pets cannot reach them or knock them over. Lighted candles should be placed away from items that can catch fire, such as trees, other evergreens, decorations, curtains and furniture.

      Lights

      • Use only lights that have been tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Lights for both indoor and outdoor usage must meet strict requirements that testing laboratories are able to verify. On decorative lights available in stores, UL’s red holographic label signifies that the product meets safety requirements for indoor and outdoor usage. UL’s green holographic label signifies that the product meets requirements for only indoor usage.
      • Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Throw out damaged sets and do not use electric lights on a metallic tree.
      • Check each extension cord to make sure it is rated for the intended use and is in good condition. Do not use cords with cuts or signs of fraying.
      • Check outdoor lights for labels showing that the lights have been certified for outdoor use, and only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)-protected receptacle or a portable GFCI.

      Fireplaces

      • Use care with “fire salts,” which produce colored flames when thrown onto wood fires. Fire salts contain heavy metals that can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting, if swallowed. Keep them away from children.
      • Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace. A flash fire may result because wrappings can ignite suddenly and burn intensely.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal are tea...