Using the tongue to ‘see’


A Wisconsin company is the manufacturer of a device designed to help blind people process visual images through their tongues.

The Food and Drug Administration announced in a news release today that it is allowing marketing of the BrainPort V100, made by Wicab Inc. of Middleton, Wis.

The battery-powered device consists of a video camera mounted on a pair of glasses and a small, flat device the user holds against his or her tongue, the FDA explained in a news release. Software converts the images captured by the camera to electrical signals that are felt as vibrations or tinglings on the tongue. With training and experience, the user can interpret the signals to determine the location, position, size and shape of objects and whether they are stationary or moving.

Studies showed 69 percent of the 74 people who completed a year of training with the device succeeded in an object-recognition test. Some users reported a burning, stinging or metallic taste from the device on the tongue, but no serious problems arose.

The news release noted that more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. were blind in 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute. It’s projected that will rise to 2.1 million by 2030 and 4.1 million by 2050.

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How much is too much?


Dr. Leonard Saltz

A combination of two drugs has had “truly, truly remarkable” results in treating skin cancer, a doctor from one of the nation’s leading cancer centers says.

But it costs too much.

Zosia Chustecka of the online journal Medscape Oncology reported on Monday about the comments of Dr. Leonard Saltz during the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.

Saltz, with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, spoke on Monday during what Chustecka called an “extra session” at the conference. Saltz has been vocal in the past about the high cost of cancer therapies, Chustecka wrote.

In his talk, Saltz spoke specifically of ipilimumab and nivolumab, both made by Bristol-Myers Squibb. They’ve achieved dramatic results in the treatment of metastatic melanoma, which was thought to be “basically untreatable” just five years ago, he said.

But “these drugs cost too much,” Saltz said.

How much?

Nivolumab costs $28.78 per milligram; a bargain compared to ipilimumab, which sots $157.46 per milligram. That’s about 4,000 times the cost of gold, Saltz said.

The median total cost per patient in the latest trial was just under $300,000, Chustecka reported. For a Medicare patient with a 20 percent co-pay, that would mean coming up with $60,000 out of pocket.

“This is unsustainable,” Chustecka quoted Saltz as saying. “We must acknowledge that there must be some upper limit to how much we can, as a society, afford to pay to treat each patient with cancer.”

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Not-so-fat Minnesota


While other states in the Upper Midwest keep getting fatter, Minnesota’s obesity has leveled off.

That’s the news the Minnesota Department of Health trumpeted today on the basis of 2013 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Source: CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System; Minnesota Department of Health

Source: CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System; Minnesota Department of Health


The percentage of Minnesotans who are considered obese peaked at 26 in 2007, according to the data, began to drop in 2008 and has stayed pretty much level since 2010.

Meanwhile, obesity rates in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have kept climbing, to almost 30 percent and beyond. Of the five states, only Minnesota is below the national median rate, the health department added.

Moreover, the number of Minnesotans whose weight is healthy increased by 60,000 between 2010 and 2013, according to the health department.

The flip side of the good news, of course, is that more than one in four Minnesotans still is obese. The numbers might give us reason for hope, but not for celebration.

Contact John Lundy at

A poisonous topic


Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about poison.poison

It’s National Poison Prevention Week, the American Lung Association in Minnesota and the Minnesota Poison Control System remind us.

The American Lung Association’s news release on the subject notes that poisonings are the second-leading cause of unintentional injury mortality in Minnesota, according to the state’s health department.

The Poison Control System (aka Poison Center), in its news release, notes that 50 percent of poisonings occur in children under 6, and 94 percent of poisonings occur in the home.

A particular concern, according to the American Lung Association, is the vials of liquid used for e-cigarettes. They can contain fatal levels of nicotine for children, who may mistake them for candy or something to eat.

But a greater source of danger is in your medicine cabinet. The Poison Center cites a Safe Kids report that 77 percent of children’s poison-related emergency room visits were related to exposure to medicines belonging to a parent or a grandparent.

The Duluth Health Homes Partnership, which is affiliated with the American Lung Association, is encouraging all of us to create poison-free homes and properly dispose of any household hazardous materials.

It you think a child or loved one may have been poisoned, you should call the national Poison Help number, (800) 222-1222. The Poison Center suggests programming the number into your cell and/or home phones.

Also, free poison prevention packets are available at all three Duluth Public Library locations.

Here’s some additional tips from the Poison Center:

  • Keep medicines and household products in their original containers.
  • Keep medicines and household products up high and out of sight or locked up. If you have visitors, make sure suitcases and purses are stored out of children’s reach, and remind visitors to take responsibility for their own medications.
  • Take the time to read and follow the label before taking or giving medicine.

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Ebola back in the news

This just came in from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:




CDC investigating potential exposures of American citizens to Ebola in West Africa


On March 13, an American volunteer healthcare worker in Sierra Leone who tested positive for Ebola virus returned to the U.S. by medevac and was admitted to the NIH Clinical Center for care and treatment.  As a result of this case, CDC is conducting contact tracing of individuals in Sierra Leone, including several other American citizens, who may have had potential exposure to this index patient.  At this time, none of these individuals have tested positive for Ebola. These individuals are volunteers in the Ebola response and are currently being monitored in Sierra Leone.  Out of an abundance of caution, CDC and the State Department are developing contingency plans for returning those Americans with potential exposure to the U.S. by non-commercial air transport. Those individuals will voluntarily self-isolate and be under direct active monitoring for the 21-day incubation period.


One of these American citizens had potential exposure to the individual being treated at NIH and is currently being transported via charter to the Atlanta area to be close to Emory University Hospital. The individual has not shown symptoms of Ebola and has not been diagnosed with Ebola. Upon arrival in Atlanta, the individual will voluntarily self-isolate and be under direct active monitoring for the 21-day incubation period.


The Obama health insurance video

Have you seen President Barack Obama’s video reminding us to sign up for health insurance by Sunday’s deadline?

If you enjoy self-deprecatory humor, check it out here:

We can’t match that, but we can remind you that Sunday is the deadline for open enrollment in the private health insurance marketplace. Last-minute free help is available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the form of “navigators” at the downtown branch of the Duluth Public Library. No appointment is necessary.

You should bring household income information and Social Security numbers for those applying. It’s not a universal deadline:  If you are eligible for public health programs or have qualifying life-changing experiences, you can apply anytime. Otherwise, Sunday is the last day to get health insurance for 2015 … and if you don’t get insurance, you may face tax penalties next year.

More information is available by calling United Way 2-1-1 or by visiting

You can contact John Lundy at




The smoking minority

Smokers are more of a minority group than ever in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Health and ClearWay Minnesota report today that, based on their annual survey, the state’s adult smoking rate has declined to 14.4 percent — the lowest rate ever in Minnesota. It’s down from 16.1 percent in 2010, the last time the survey took place.

The survey result means about 580,000 Minnesotans continue to smoke, according to a news release from the agencies.

Additional conclusions:

  • More than 60 percent of smokers who quit during the past year indicated the statewide tobacco price increase in 2013 helped them make that decision.
  • Minnesotans with less than a high school education have the highest smoking rate: 28.6 percent.
  • Between the genders, a greater percentage of men smoke (16.5 to 12.4 percent).
  • For the first time, the youngest adults (ages 18-24) aren’t the most likely to smoke. The age group that smokes the most now is adults 25-44.
  • Not surprisingly, the percentage of Minnesotans who have used e-cigarettes within the 30 previous days has risen — from 0.7 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent last year. Almost two-thirds of e-cigarette users were current smokers.

You can learn more here:

You can contact John Lundy at

Flu numbers down (for now)

Although influenza remains widespread in Minnesota, numbers took a dip during the week that ended Dec. 27, according to Minnesota Department of Health data.

The number of hospitalizations was down to seven during the week, compared with 84 the week before. None of the hospitalizations occurred in Northeastern Minnesota.

School outbreaks, which skyrocketed to 315 the week before, were down to 34 last week. (An outbreak means at least 5 percent of a school population is out with an influenza-like illness or at least three children from anyone elementary classroom.)

Outbreaks in long-term care facilities were down, too, from 33 to 22.

Of course, people and their doctors may have made more of an effort to avoid hospitalization in the week that included Christmas. And most schools weren’t in session most of the week, if at all. A better picture might emerge in a couple of weeks when schools have been back in session.

Still, the data suggest this hasn’t been an unusually harsh year for influenza so far, at least in Minnesota. To date, 577 Minnesotans have been hospitalized in the current influenza season. Compared with the previous five seasons, that’s more to this date only than the 2011-12 season (556) cases. It’s much less than 2009-10 (2,060), 2012-13 (3,068) and last year (1,540).

The seven cases last week can be compared to 382 cases during the same week two years ago.

But influenza always takes a toll, especially among the young and old. Already this season, three Minnesota children have died because of it.

It’s a reminder that such  precautions as staying home when you’re sick, washing your hands zealously and perhaps an elbow bump instead of shaking hands or embracing always make sense.

Contact John Lundy at


And the best place for an active lifestyle is …

Omaha, Neb, is the home of Warren Buffett, the College Baseball World Series, and — take it from me — an above-average tea shop.

It’s also the best place for people with an active lifestyle.

So says Wallet Hub, a website the purports to provide helpful information for consumers and owners of small businesses.

Evaluating categories such as the cost of playing golf, fitness club fees and the percentage of people who are physically active, Wallet Hub says Omaha rose to the top, followed by Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; Reno, Nev.; and Orlando, Fla.

Duluth, aka the best outdoors city in the country, wasn’t evaluated. But the city on the other end of Interstate 35 was. Laredo, Texas, ranked last: 100 out of the 100 communities ranked.

Only Minneapolis (15th) and St. Paul (21st) were on the list from Minnesota; and Madison (25th) and Milwaukee (64th) in Wisconsin.

Madison has the highest number of basketball hoops per capita of any city surveyed, and the most “park playgrounds,” the report found. Minneapolis ranked third in the number of tennis courts.

Look for yourself here:

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Not dependent, just drinking a lot

People who drink too much are alcoholics, or at least are alcohol-dependent.


Usually not, according to a study that appears today in Preventing Chronic Disease, the journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nine out of 10 adults who drink too much alcohol are not alcoholics and aren’t alcohol-dependent, the study concluded.

The study found that almost one out of every three of us drinks excessively. Most are binge drinkers, usually on multiple occasions. But only about one in 30 adults is classified as alcohol-dependent.

The study defines excessive drinking as:

  • Binge drinking — four or more drinks on an occasion for women; five or more drinks for men
  • Consuming eight or more drinks within a week for women or 15 or more drinks for men
  • Any alcohol use by pregnant women
  • Any alcohol use by individuals younger than 21.

This doesn’t explain why a lot of people who aren’t alcohol-dependent nonetheless drink more than they should. But whatever the cause, the cost is enormous. Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC, and it takes a $223.5 billion annual toll on the economy.

The study was conducted by scientists from the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They analyzed data on 138,100 U.S. adults ages 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who participated in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009, 2010 or 2011.

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