Health Highlights: Feb. 7, 2018

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

Nearly 12 Million Americans Enrolled for 2018 Obamacare Coverage

This year's enrollment numbers for insurance under the Affordable Care Act are similar to last year, despite efforts by the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress to undermine and repeal the program.

About 11.8 million Americans have signed up for coverage this year, about 3 percent less than last year, according to the Associated Press.

That number surprised some experts.

"If you had asked me a year ago whether enrollment for 2018 would be almost equal to 2017, I would have laughed at you," Larry Levitt, who follows health law for the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, told the AP.

"So long as lots of people are still getting insurance it becomes much harder to take that away," he added.

Republicans in Congress tried to repeal the program, and the Trump administration cut the sign-up period in half, gutted the ad budget, and eliminated a major subsidy to insurers, leading to an increase in premiums, the AP reported.

Despite the high enrollment figure this year, the program's future is uncertain as the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress continue their attacks on it.

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Hoping to Reduce Infection Risk, FDA OKs Endoscope Design Changes

Design changes meant to improve the cleaning and disinfection of a Pentax duodenoscope and reduce the risk of infections have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Over the past few years, there have been a string of serious infections in U.S. hospitals tied to unsterilized duodenoscopes.

The devices are flexible, lighted tubes that are threaded through the mouth, throat and stomach to the small intestine. They're used to diagnose and treat problems in the liver, pancreas and gallbladder, the FDA explained.

Approval of the changes to the Pentax ED-3490TK duodenoscope was announced Wednesday by the agency.

It also alerted health care facilities about a voluntary recall of the devices to make corrections to its design that will improve cleaning and disinfection.

"Reducing infections associated with duodenoscopes remains a top priority for the FDA, and we believe the new design changes to the Pentax duodenoscope will make these devices easier to clean and high-level disinfect to help enhance their safety," Dr. Suzanne Schwartz, associate director for science and strategic partnerships at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in an agency news release.

"We will continue to encourage new innovations for these devices to protect public health while enabling patients to have continued access to minimally invasive, life-saving endoscopy procedures," she added.

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New Gerber Spokesbaby is First With Down Syndrome

The first child with Down syndrome to become a Gerber baby in the 90 years since the contest began more than 90 years ago is a 1-year-old from Georgia.

Beating out more than 140,000 other entries in Gerber's 2018 Spokesbaby contest was Lucas Warren, USA Today reported.

"Lucas' winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts this year, and we are all thrilled to name him our 2018 Spokesbaby," Bill Partyka, president and CEO of Gerber, said in a statement.

"Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber's longstanding heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby, and this year, Lucas is the perfect fit," he added.

"We hope this opportunity sheds light on the special needs community and educates people that with acceptance and support, individuals with special needs have the potential to change the world -- just like our Lucas," Lucas' mother Cortney Warren said in a statement, USA Today reported.

Lucas' family will receive $50,000 and appear on Gerber's social media channels throughout the year.

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Norovirus Outbreak Hits Security Staff at Pyeongchang Olympics

About 1,200 security staff at the Pyeongchang Olympics have been isolated due to an outbreak of contagious norovirus.

The workers are being tested for the virus and will be kept in their rooms until they're confirmed to be well, Lee Hee-beom, chairman of the Pyeongchang Olympics organizing committee, said Tuesday, CBS News/Associated Press reported.

An investigation into the outbreak began after 41 security guards developed diarrhea and vomiting. Food and water sources are being inspected at a mountainside facility in Pyeongchang where the guards were staying, 18 other facilities that rely on groundwater are also being inspected.

Good hand-washing and hygiene habits are the most effective way to stop the spread of norovirus, which causes stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea, CBS/AP reported.

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Two Gene Editing Study Patients Doing Well: Researchers

No major side effects or safety concerns have occurred in the first patient to undergo gene editing in a study in California, and a second patient recently underwent the procedure.

The goal of gene editing is to permanently change a patient's DNA in order to cure a disease, the Associated Press reported.

Brian Madeux, 44, was the first person to have gene editing inside the body for a genetic metabolic disease called Hunter syndrome. During an IV procedure in November, Madeux received numerous copies of a corrective gene and a genetic tool to place the gene in a precise spot in his DNA.

"He's doing well and we were approved to go ahead with the second patient who also is doing well," said Dr. Paul Harmatz of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, who treated both patients for the same disease, the AP reported.

Safety results for the first six weeks after Madeux's treatment were reported by Harmatz at a medical conference in San Diego. The company that makes the gene editing tool said more information about safety and effectiveness should be available by mid-year.

Most significantly, Madeux has no signs of liver damage.

"That's the big worry" because liver problems could indicate that his immune system was attacking the gene editing therapy and possibly limiting its effectiveness, according to Harmatz, the AP reported.

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Brain Implant Boosts Memory

An experimental brain implant improved memory in volunteers and may point to a new way to treat memory-damaging conditions such as brain injury and dementia.

The device was tested on 25 people with epilepsy who were being evaluated for an operation and improved their word recall by 15 percent, about the amount that's lost to Alzheimer's disease over two-and-half years, The New York Times reported.

However, some experts noted that amount of improvement is fairly modest.

The device sends electrical pulses to the brain when it is having difficulty storing new information, but is inactive when it senses that brain function is normal.

The results of test were published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

"The exciting thing about this is that, if it can be replicated and extended, then we can use the same method to figure out what features of brain activity predict good performance," Bradley Voytek, assistant professor of cognitive and data science, University of California, San Diego, told The Times.

"Very similar approaches might be relevant for other applications, such as treating symptoms of depression or anxiety," said Dr. Edward Chang, professor of neurosurgery, University of California, San Francisco.

Currently, the implant requires multiple electrodes to be placed in the brain, making it a highly delicate procedure, The Times reported.

"Ideally we can find other, less invasive ways to switch the brain from these lower to higher functioning states," Voytek said. "I don't know what those would be, but eventually we're going to have to work out the ethical and public policy questions raised by this technology."

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