U.S. Nursing Shortage / Depression and Alzheimer's Linked? / New Findings About Malaria

This is Phoebe Zimmerman. And this is Steve Ember with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about problems caused by a lack of nurses working in American hospitals. We tell about a possible link between depression and Alzheimer's disease. We tell about a poisonous weed discovered in the eastern United States. And we tell new information about the organism that causes malaria.

A new report says a lack of nurses in American hospitals is putting hospital patients at risk. The report says the lack of trained medical workers is partly to blame for incidents that kill or injure patients. It urges the federal government and the health care industry to take steps to deal with the problem.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations released the report. The commission is a private group that inspects and judges the quality of American hospitals.

Most nurses work in hospitals. They care for sick people and help them get better. Other nurses work in medical offices, schools or retirement centers for older adults. Visiting nurses go to the homes of sick people to care for them.

The new report warns that more than one-hundred-twenty-six-thousand nursing positions in the United States have not been filled. It says that number is expected to rise in the next few years, when millions of older Americans will need health care services.

The report also says ninety percent of nursing homes for old people who are sick do not have enough nurses to provide even the most common care. It notes that some home health care agencies are being forced to refuse new patients.

The commission based its findings on a study of unexpected problems in American hospitals that resulted in death or injury. The hospitals reported one-thousand-six-hundred such cases involving deaths or serious injury since nineteen-ninety-six. The report says the lack of nurses was partly responsible for twenty-four percent of the problems that resulted in death or injury to hospital patients.

For example, a lack of nurses was found partly responsible for fifty percent of all problems involving breathing equipment. Nursing shortages also were partly to blame for forty-two percent of incidents involving medical operations and nineteen percent of problems involving medicine.

Experts say there are several reasons for the shortage of nurses in hospitals. Many hospitals are trying to cut costs and save money by employing fewer nurses. Many nurses leave the profession because they must work too many hours each day. They also say the job is difficult and stressful. Many more people are leaving the nursing profession than are entering it.

The report suggests three ways to increase the number of nurses. One is to improve the working conditions for nurses. The report also proposes improving training for nursing students. And it suggests giving more federal money to hospitals.

Last month, Congress approved a measure designed to ease the nursing shortage. The measure provides financial aid for nursing students who agree to work for at least two years at a hospital with a shortage of nurses. President Bush recently signed the bill into law.

American scientists say they have established a possible link between the medical condition depression and Alzheimer's disease. They say older adults who report signs of depression may be more likely to develop Alzheimer's than other people. The findings are reported in "Neurology," a publication of the American Academy of Neurology.

Alzheimer's disease affects millions of people throughout the world. It destroys their ability to think and remember. In the United States alone, an estimated one in ten people over the age of sixty-five suffers from this disease.

The new study involved more than six-hundred-fifty men and women over the age of sixty-five. They all were members of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. The study included yearly examinations of the nervous system and tests of thinking and memory. Damage to short-term memory is one of the first signs of Alzheimer's.

About half of the people reported no signs of depression at the start of the study. The other half had between one and eight common signs of the condition. Depression causes intense feelings of sadness. Common signs are lack of energy and loss of interest in things a person once enjoyed. Other signs are difficulty thinking, problems sleeping or eating and thoughts of death.

At the end of seven years, one-hundred-eight people in the study had developed Alzheimer's disease. Robert Wilson of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, Illinois led the study. He says there was an almost twenty percent increase in the risk of Alzheimer's with each sign of depression reported at the beginning of the study. He says he and his team believe these signs appear to be linked to the risk of developing the disease.

Mr. Wilson is an expert in measuring how memory works in older adults. He says it is difficult to say why there appears to be a connection between depression and Alzheimer's. He notes that evidence of Alzheimer's has been found in the brains of older people after they die. However, not all of those people had the common signs of the disease. He also says it is possible that other processes not understood by scientists might show how well a person is able to fight the disease.

A huge poisonous plant from the Caucasus Mountains of central Asia is now growing in several parts of the United States. Officials in Massachusetts confirmed the presence of this giant hogweed last month. It was the first time the weed has been identified in the state. Officials in other areas also warn about hogweed. It has been reported in about six states in other parts of the country.

Massachusetts agricultural experts discovered the hogweed when a woman suffered hand and leg wounds after she cut back a tall weed. The hogweed was growing on her farm near Springfield, Massachusetts.

Hogweed can be easily recognized by its size. It can grow to a height of more than four-and-one-half meters. Its leaves grow to be about one-and-one-half meters across. Hogweed produces white flowers from late spring to the middle of summer. It also produces flat, dry fruits.One agricultural expert called the weed evil.

Fluid from the weed contains a harmful chemical that destroys the ability of the skin to block damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun. This causes severe burns that can permanently mark the skin.

Scientists believe hogweed is about one-hundred years old. It comes from an area between the Caspian and Black seas in central Asia. Scientists are not sure exactly when it first arrived in the United States. It was introduced in the United States, Canada and Britain as an unusual plant for the garden. After its poisonous effects were discovered, it was barred from entering the United States. But some experts say its continues to arrive with travelers from other countries.

Researchers in the United States have discovered that the organism that causes the disease malaria is genetically more developed and much older than earlier thought. Because of this, they say it will be harder to develop medicines to prevent and treat the deadly disease.

Plasmodium falciparum (plas-MO-dee-um fall-SIP-ah-rum) is the parasite that causes the most deadly kind of malaria. Each year, the disease kills more than two-million people and infects more than two-hundred-million people. In the past, doctors used the drug chloroquine (KLOR-oh-kwine) to treat malaria.

However, over the past few decades the falciparum parasite has developed resistance to the medicine. Xin-zhuan Su (sin-SCHWAN soo) led the two studies published last month in the publication Nature. He says that new treatments to fight malaria may be possible as scientists learn more about the history of the falciparum parasite.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by George Grow, Jerilyn Watson and Jill Moss. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Phoebe Zimmerman. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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Source: SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - August 27, 2002: U.S. Nursing Shortage / Depression and Alzheimer's Linked? / New Findings About Malaria
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