Your vital health news and information

Our family GP gives a general lowdown of interesting health news, from folic acid to BBQ health tips, from pregnancy to toddlers

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How much TV should your little one watch?

MMR vaccine

The MMR vaccine is back in the headlines following concerns that the evidence in the original controversial study wasn’t accurate. It’s 10 years since Dr Andrew Wakefield claimed a link between MMR and inflammatory bowel disease and autism. Although the study looked at just 12 children, many parents decided not to give their child the vaccine.

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The percentage of children receiving MMR fell from 92% to 85% in 2007-08. In some areas of London it’s 50%, leading to more cases of measles, and some deaths. Numerous studies since 1998 have failed to support Dr Wakefield’s findings and the General Medical Council are investigating him in relation to ethical aspects of his research.

Vaccinations do carry a small risk, but it’s considered to be smaller than the risk posed by the diseases themselves. As measles can kill, it’s important parents know there’s no link between MMR and autism.

Telly Addicts?

A recent study shows that children who watch TV for two or more hours a day have a greater risk of developing asthma by age 12. We already know that the longer children sit watching TV rather than being active, the more likely they are to put on weight. But the weight gain isn’t a direct cause of the increase in asthma. Instead, researchers have found that it’s to do with how children breathe when inactive. As they use the muscles in their airway less when sitting still, sensitivity in their airway is increased. So what should you do?

Ensuring your tot stays active is a start. And encouraging movement in front of the TV is good – having a dance or sing-a-long. But children often become less active as they get older and you need to encourage an active lifestyle at each stage. Lead by example and make sure you aren’t a telly addict too.

Health tips for a summer barbecue

  • Watch the meat. At a barbecue, poorly cooked meat is often the main culprit for food poisoning. Make sure that it’s piping hot all the way through.
  • Chill it. Any food being left out ready for guests needs to be refrigerated, or covered and in a cool place if out on a table prior to serving, to keep flies away.
  • Keep your fluids up. Make sure you and your little ones are properly hydrated, especially in the lunchtime heat and in open spaces too.
  • Mind the sunshine. Especially for adults, sunshine plus alcohol equals headaches! For little ones, hats and suncream are essential if you’re outside all day cooking and playing.
  • See your GP. If you or your children suffer prolonged sickness or diarrhoea after a barbecue or indeed any summer meal, contact your GP, who may ask for a stool sample and prescribe suitable medication.

Ways to dodge hay fever

  • Watch the windows. If you can bear to, keeping windows closed, especially in the evening, can keep pollen out.
  • Use shades. Wearing sunglasses can stop pollen getting in your eyes.
  • Keep off the grass. Freshly mown lawns will bring on sneezes; so even if the kids want to go outside, try to avoid the garden until the dust has settled.
  • ‘Catch’ the pollen. Using a product like Vaseline just inside your and your little ones’ nostrils will help keep the pollen out.
  • Wash it off. When you’ve been out in green areas make sure you wash your hands and even your hair before bed to get rid of pollen.

Could your man go on the pill?

If you’ve ever wished your man could take responsibility for birth control, you’ll be excited to hear about a new trial of a contraceptive injection for men.

It contains two hormones – testosterone and progesterone – and is given every two months. It works by reducing sperm production and early results suggest it is 99% effective.

As part of a worldwide study, 80 UK couples are participating in a year-long trial of the treatment. The study will analyse results from several countries, and therefore give a better idea of reactions to different doses of hormone.

It’ll still be some time (doctors predict at least five more years) before there’s conclusive proof of whether the jab could work for your other half, so keep taking your pills for now!

Folic Acid

Is there a downside?

Most pregnant women know the benefits of taking folic acid. But new ongoing research has thrown up a potential downside. The American Journal of Epidemiology reported that taking folic acid in late pregnancy might increase the risk of asthma in children. The small study needs to be confirmed, and doesn’t in any way suggest women should stop taking folic acid before they conceive or in the first three months of pregnancy, as no harmful effects were found early in pregnancy. However, children born to women who had taken folic acid in the later stages of pregnancy were more likely to develop asthma, and this needs to be looked at in larger studies to find out if folic acid is the cause. If you’re worried, see your GP.

Is folic acid being added to bread?

If the government’s Food Standards Agency’s recommendations are taken up, all bread will soon come with added vitamin B9 (better known as folic acid) to reduce the number of babies with neural tube defects.

The call to add the supplement to flour is supported by a recent Canadian study showing further benefits of folic acid for pregnant mums. Adding B9 to some foods became compulsory in Quebec in 1998 and since the ruling, the number of babies born with heart defects has decreased by 6%.

The UK Department of Health is currently looking at the arguments for and against adding B9 – there have been concerns that long-term supplementation could be harmful to some people. However, women trying to conceive, or already pregnant, should continue to take folic acid supplements as this is a higher dose than will be in food, and has greater benefit.

Technology worries?

Bonding with your baby before she’s born is extremely important. Many mums credit hearing their baby’s heartbeat for the first time at their scan as a pivotal moment. But now, in addition to scans, another option some mums are using to hear their baby’s heartbeat is a foetal heart monitor or Doppler device, also used by midwives to check on the heartbeat. The problem is, to an untrained ear, you might just be hearing the blood flow around the placenta.

Now experts have issued a warning about the machines, amid fears mums are using them instead of seeking help when there’s a problem. A recent report in the British Medical Journal described how a mum came to doctors at 32 weeks with reduced foetal movements. She’d used a Doppler, thought she heard the heartbeat, and didn’t contact doctors for two days. Her baby spent eight weeks in the special care unit after an emergency delivery. While it’s an isolated case, it underlines the fact it’s imperative to contact your GP or midwife if you feel something’s wrong. Home machines are a fun bonding tool, but it’s important they don’t replace your other appointments.

First aid essentials

As a mum who’s had to resuscitate my own child, I know how vital first-aid knowledge is. New figures from St John Ambulance reveal 150,000 people die each year partly because of lack of first aid from others. Also, 1 in 4 people would not try to intervene in a life-threatening situation. Common serious situations include choking, severe bleeding, unconsciousness and heart attacks. Having some first-aid knowledge enables you to treat minor injuries and to know what to do in an emergency. If you’ve got an iPhone, download the St John Ambulance first-aid app. Or see www.sja.org.uk for information on free courses.

Did you know…

  • A recent survey carried out for Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation and Diabetes UK revealed that almost 60% of parents didn’t realise that being overweight in childhood increased the risk of cancer later in life. Also, 66% didn’t realise that there was a link between obesity and type 2 diabetes. If you’re still confused, ask your GP.
  • Juggling makes kids clever! It boosts communication between the cells in the brain that trigger movement.
  • The anti-impotence drug Viagra has been used in the UK to help a woman conceive. A scan showed that the lining of her womb was too thin to implant an embyro so she was prescribed Viagra, which causes increased blood flow to the womb and can improve the lining thickness. After nine days of taking the tablets, IVF was successful. But before you rush out and buy a pack, remember to seek medical advice as it’s by no means a tried and tested, safe method.

Nuts or not?

Following a report from a special committee examining the risk of peanut allergy in babies, the Food Standards Agency has now advised the UK Government to change its recommendations to pregnant mums.

At the moment, pregnant women with a close family history of allergy – including food allergy, asthma, eczema and hay fever – are advised to avoid peanuts during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

However, the evidence that has emerged since this advice was issued back in 1998 does not support a link between the mother eating peanuts when pregnant and her baby subsequently developing a peanut allergy.

The Department of Health advice has yet to change, so the official advice still currently recommends avoiding peanuts. If, however, you’re experiencing a peanut craving, discuss it with your doctor so you can make an informed decision.

Let’s support dads too

Whenever a new mum admits to me she’s down, I know it’s a brave moment. It’s also empowering, as it’s the first step to recognising and dealing with postnatal depression. However, it’s rare that a dad will own up to similar feelings. So I was pleased to read this month about a new statistic derived from 43 studies revealing that one in 10 dads suffer from PND, and that, as with mums, it was most likely to kick in three to six months after the birth.

But why was I pleased, you’re probably thinking? Well, I hope that by hearing how other dads can admit to not coping, those who are hiding their feelings can come forward and get help too.

Women see docs more often

I was surprised to read recent reports stating that women are bigger hypochondriacs than men! What on earth were they talking about?

It turns out that it’s more likely women will report they’re ill than men. Based on census forms completed in 2001, the Office of National Statistics concluded that , “Women were more likely than men to report that they were in ‘not good’ or ‘fairly good’ health, but they were less likely to die during the follow-up period.” So women appear to get on with looking for a solution, while men like to suffer (usually not in silence)!

As a GP, my conclusion is that it’s always best to see your doctor if you’re worried. Better safe than sorry.

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No place like home for birth?

At a GP’s first consultation with an expectant mum there are always lots of questions. One of the most often asked is where’s the best place to give birth. Women are looking for answers but what most don’t know is that although us doctors are more than happy to provide you with the information you need, we can’t make the decision for you. This has been underlined recently after research in the US showed there was an increased risk of neonatal deaths from home births, prompting the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to issue a warning to GPs against encouraging home births. So I’m very sorry, but we really do have to sit on the fence.

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