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Autism and Childhood Vaccines Linked?; How to Get More Sleep; Kids Coping with Parents Having Cancer; One Man Losing Weight and Making Life Changes

Aired March 8, 2008 - 08:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Thanks, guys. This is HOUSE CALL. We're making the rounds this morning of some of the intriguing medical stories of the week.
First up, autism and vaccines and a possible link in one child. So what does it all really mean?

Sleep, we all need it, but most of us don't get enough. So what can you really do about it?

And kids coping with mom or dad having cancer. How getting some tools to work with makes them a little bit easier.

Plus, a man needing to lose some weight to set a goal and is making some life long changes.

We start, though, with a girl at the center of a landmark vaccination lawsuit. In an unprecedented move, the Department of Health and Human Services says childhood vaccines may have contributed to symptoms of autism in a nine-year old Georgia girl.

Now, the report did not find a clear cut link between autism and the vaccine, but says the vaccine possibly aggravated a preexisting and rare metabolic syndrome in the child. A lot of research indicates there is no link between vaccines and autism, but those who believe there is are seeing this case as some proof.

Here's what the family had to say.


JON POLING, DR., FATHER OF AUTISTIC CHILD: Hannah got very sick shortly after a series of vaccinations that she received at about 19 months old. And after that rather acute illness, she never was the same again. And the autism itself did not come on immediately. It was something that developed over months.


GUPTA: Federal officials feel the family should be financially compensated. But what kind of compensation is still being negotiated. Health officials worry this case could affect whether or not parents choose to vaccinate their children. We'll, of course, continue to bring you the update on this story as it unfolds. As many as one in every 166 children in this country is diagnosed with autism. And the number of cases continues to rise. But medical researchers still know very little about its cause. However, as doctors look into everything from genetics to the environment for a certain kind of culprit, more and more details about this complicated disease are starting to unfold.


GUPTA: It is a true medical mystery, the secrets of an autistic brain.

WENDY STONE, VANDERBILT KENNEDY CTR.: There is no identified single cause of autism that is universal for all children. But -- and there may never be.

GUPTA: As with many mysteries of the mind, doctors point to genetics and environment as culprits. But as the mystery starts to unfold, we learned that it could be more complicated than that. The newest research shows that there is something that a child is born with that allows outside factors to wreak havoc on their little brains. More simply, these children are not necessarily born with autism, but they are born with the potential to develop it. And what exactly are those outside factors? Not sure.

STONE: Before we're born, it's the mother's womb and placenta. After we're born, it's what we eat, it's what we breathe, it's what we drink. And there are so many different things out there that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

GUPTA: Still, any parents of an autistic child will have theories. When Zack Couch's parents learned he had autism, his mother began to change his diet, worried he was eating something that was causing him to get worse. Some families believe that a preservative in some childhood vaccines called thimerasol is causing autism in their children. The CDC says no scientific link.

ROBERT DAVIS, DR., CDC: Now that we have the data coming in, there is no data to suggest that thimerasol or mercury (INAUDIBLE) is linked to autism.

GUPTA: And what about the genetic link? Well, doctors at Vanderbilt are studying siblings of autistic children.

STONE: They are at elevated risk of developing autism from birth. We can start following these children and we can identify the very earliest signs.

GUPTA: Catching those early signs may help doctors get one step closer to solving the mystery. So what exactly is happening in an autistic brain? At the University of Pittsburgh, doctors are seeing what's happening inside the autistic brain.

The picture here shows a normal brain on the left, an autistic brain on the left, which dramatically fewer connections lighting up. No, we still don't know what exactly causes it or even how to explain the rising rates across the United States. But every day, we're getting closer to solving the mystery of autism.


GUPTA: There are many questions that still need to be answered, no doubt. But we'll continue bringing you updates as they come to us. And for the latest medical insights and controversies, you won't want to miss CNN's special coverage of the global impact of autism. That's on April 2nd.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm tired every day. You know, every night I'm tired.


GUPTA: How those sleepless nights could be putting your heart at risk.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL. Daylight Savings Time is here. And according to the National Sleep Foundation, we're tired enough without losing that extra hour. In fact, the average American worker gets only six hours and 40 minutes of sleep a night. That's about 40 minutes less than is necessary.

So we asked some people about their own sleeping habits.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Off and on, about four to six hours, maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I actually make sure I get at least seven or eight hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I guess the standard people say is eight hours. And I rarely get that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good night for us, I'll probably get four or five hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel like way tired when I wake up. You know like oh, my God, you know, here we go again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm tired every day. Every night, I'm tired.


GUPTA: And the National Institutes of Health tells us about 40 million of us have sleep problems. How you sleep and how long you sleep says a lot.

Let's turn to our guest, Dr. David Shulman from Emory University School of medicine. Thanks for being here, first of all.

DAVID SCHULMAN, SLEEP EXPERT: Thanks for having me.

GUPTA: You know, it's interesting. So we hear that people don't get enough sleep. And I don't -- you know, full admission, I don't get enough sleep. How bad is that really? What am I at risk for?

SCHULMAN: Well, there's growing evidence that chronic sleep deprivation not only affects your day to day functioning, interpersonal relations, how good you are at work, how efficient you at work, your memory. But also over the long run, it has health implications. You're more likely to get into car accidents. You are probably more likely to die over the long run according to a couple of large studies.

GUPTA: That's a little frightening. Now OK, let's say, I -- you know, don't sleep very well during the week, just because of schedules, but I make up for it on the weekends.

SCHULMAN: Good. Well, certainly, a lot better than it being chronically sleep depravation. The problem with sleep deprivation, almost like chronic alcoholism is that over a while, you forget that you have a problem and you grow accustomed to it. So your recollection that you are deprived and catching up on weekends is a heck of a lot better than chronic deprivation every day.

GUPTA: Right. What about people who snore? And I'm not saying I do or my wife, in case she's watching, but what about people who snore?

SCHULMAN: Well, snoring in and of itself may or may not be a problem. But what we're concerned about is that snoring is a marker for sleep apnea. About half of folks who snore on a regular basis have some form of sleep apnea. And we have growing evidence that sleep apnea increases the risk for high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, diabetes, heart disease, and probably death as well.

GUPTA: You know, as you -- and I know this is what you do for a living, but as you look at the -- all the problems people have with sleep, are there tips that sort of come to you that really seem to work as far as people getting a better night's sleep?

SCHULMAN: Well, if insomnia's the problem, that's a very common problem in America. You'd want to make sure that you have a regular dark, quiet sleeping environment. You're avoiding caffeine after about 12:00 p.m. You try to go to bed at the same time every night. You try to get rid of your stress, not that that's particularly easy.

But you also want to go to a doctor if this is a problem that's persisting several days per week, or certainly several weeks per month, because it could be a sign of a more significant problem, such as sleep apnea, such as restless leg syndrome.

GUPTA: Do you ever recommend medications, sleeping medications?

SCHULMAN: I think it's probably reasonable to do it one or two nights a month, but if you're requiring it more often that than, I think getting an evaluation by a doctor prior to more regular use would be critical.

GUPTA: This is one of the most important topics we talk about here on HOUSE CALL. So I really appreciate your time. Dr. Schulman from Emory University of Medicine. Thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What I'm probably most afraid of is losing her, but you try not to think about that.


GUPTA: The difficult choice one family faced and how their decision could help save other children with a rare birth defect. That later in the show.

But first, could you be the victim of false advertising? Details 60 seconds away in the medical headlines. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Some quick medical headlines now. First up, the manufacturers of Airborne, that's an herbal supplement that once claimed to fight off colds, plan to refund consumers who purchased the product between May 2001 and November 2007. That's right, a class action lawsuit determined advertising for the product was deceptive. And there's no credible evidence that the ingredients help prevent colds or protect from germs. Now, people who purchased Airborne can visit for more details.

Also in the news, more concern for women on hormone replacement therapy or HRT. And new study followed more than 16,000 women for three years who took HRT. The study found an increased cancer risk even after women stopped taking the hormones. However, women in the study received higher doses of HRT than currently prescribed. And experts say lower doses are safe and effective for treating menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, irritability, and vaginal dryness.

Hormone therapy remains a sensitive, hot button issue in women's health. We'll have tips to make smart decisions when it comes to HRT later on in the show.

But first, why one little girl's story may change how children with rare heart defects are treated in the future. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL. Each year, as many as 600 babies are born with a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. It's one of the most complex and rare heart defects. Without surgery, 90 percent of these babies could die before their first birthday.

Now here at HOUSE CALL, we've been following one little girl and her family through a clinical trial that might bring some new hope to those tiny hearts. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA (voice-over): At barely two months, Annabelle already has 60 tiny hair bows and after risky heart surgery, a better chance at survival.

REBECCA BUTCHER, BABY BORN WITH HEART DEFECT: What I'm probably most afraid of is losing her, but you try not to think about that.

GUPTA: Rebecca was just 16 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with a heart defect. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Left untreated, it would be lethal.

SCOTT BRADLEY, DR., PEDIATRIC CARDIOLOGIST: The left side of the heart either forms incompletely or does not form at all.

GUPTA: The Butchers had to make heart breaking choices, whether to end the pregnancy or commit to surgery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a big shock for us.

R. BUTCHER: We decided that we would let her fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lord, we just thank you for this day.

GUPTA: The Butchers would say Annabelle's birth by C-section in January was their happiest day. Within days of her birth, Annabelle is wheeled in for risky open heart surgery. With Annabelle's defect, the left side is so undeveloped, it can't pump enough blood. During the eight-hour operation, doctors insert a tube or a shunt to reroute her circulation. It's complicated work. Her heart's the size of a walnut, her blood vessels the head of a pin. The wait is agonizing for her family.

R. BUTCHER: The waiting game is not fun, but I think we're all right.

GUPTA: Surgery is a success. And within a week, her parents are able to hold her for the first time. Anna's next operation will be when she's four to six months old, the third when she's about 2. She'll need medications and constant care. For now, her parents dream of giving both kids as normal a life as possible.

BUTCHER: To graduate from high school, to graduate from college, to see her get married, that's my hope for her, to have a completely normal life.


GUPTA: And children with Hypoplastic Heart Syndrome often don't grow up to be competitive athletes and probably won't have the exercise capacity most people do. But after the operation, they can go on to live fairly normal lives, occasionally needing operations in their 20s or 30s if they develop arrhythmias.

And we should add that if you get medical University of South Carolina where Annabelle's operation was performed, success rates are up to 90 percent. So a lot of hope there for little Annabelle. Good luck to her and her family as well.

And now a role reversal. What happens when the parent is the one who's sick? Each year, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 learn one of their parents has cancer. Imagine that. And a new program is helping them to cope when that parent can't be around.

Judy Fortin has this report.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name's Dr. Jeff.

JUDY FORTIN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These kids are going where children don't usually go, on a tour of the radiation department at the Erlanger Cancer Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guy are kind of experts in this, aren't you?

FORTIN: Each of these youngsters has a parent or close relative with cancer. They've joined a nationwide support group called the Children's Treehouse Foundation. This is their chance to ask questions.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a great question, does it hurt, because you sure think that something that's strong enough to stop a cancer must hurt, right? That's what you think. But it doesn't. It's sort of quiet. It's like -- almost like magic.

FORTIN: If only if were magic. Today, guided by oncology nurse Janet Kramer-Mai, herself a breast cancer survivor, the group learns firsthand how tough fighting cancer can be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My mother's starting to lose her hair because she's doing chemotherapy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does it make her sad?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What do you think about that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's making me kind of nervous.

JANET KRAMER-MAI, RN, ERLANGER CANCER CENTER: They're given the tools that they need to cope with whatever's going on with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, whoever's in the family.

FORTIN: Patient advocate Sam Harris says cancer impacts the entire family. And he recommends parents find a support group for young children. SAM HARRIS, ERLANGER CANCER CTR.: Because it helps to relieve their fears and to know that mom and dad are being well taken care of here.

FORTIN: That's what Chris Johnson was looking for when he enrolled his two sons in the program. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago.

CHRIS JOHNSON, FATHER: It has taken a lot of pressure off of her, because it's tough enough to have cancer.

FORTIN: He says sharing the news with her children was difficult, but necessary.

JOHNSON: You walk a fine line. I mean, you don't want to just, you know, throw all the medical terms at them, you know, and be cold and clinical about it. But you don't want to shelter them either from the fact that, you know, this is a disease that kills people.

FORTIN: The support group offers a real lesson for his 11-year- old son Hayden.

HAYDEN JOHNSON, 11-YEARS OLD: I came to like what my mom goes through.

FORTIN: Hayden leaves the cancer center knowing that he's not the only child with a loved one battling cancer. And that helps, at least a little.

Judy Fortin, CNN, Atlanta.


GUPTA: All right, Judy, thanks.

You know, coming up, with all the confusion over the risks of hormone replacement therapy, Elizabeth Cohen stops by to empower yourself when deciding on the treatment.


GUPTA: Some important information for women asking about treating symptoms of menopause with hormone replacement therapy. Women still asking are they safe? Elizabeth Cohen is here to give us the good and bad about HRT.

We've been talking about this for five years now, you and ?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, yes, absolutely. And you know what? The "Empowered Patient" got sick of this because -- sick of the fact that there's all this information oftentimes that conflicts with one another, making it really hard for women to make the decision should they or should they not go on hormone replacement therapy.

So, the "Empowered Patient" -- we call doctors that just lay it on the line. What are some good reasons for taking it and what are some bad reasons. And so, here's what they told us.

They said as far as good reasons go, there are about five of them. I'm going to tell you two of them now. You have to go online to get the rest. But severe hot flashes, if a woman is having hot flashes that are so bad she can't function, that's a good reason to consider going on hormones. Also, severe night sweats, another good reason to consider going on hormones.

Sanjay, sometimes I think that women hear the news and think hormones, forget it.

GUPTA: Right.

COHEN: Absolutely not, never. That's not really the answer. The answer is to pick and choose your reasons. And are they good reasons or are they not good reasons?

GUPTA: But when they came out, it made perfect sense, right? Women's hormone levels go down, and so you replace that. That makes sense. But what about the bad reasons? What have we learned now?

COHEN: Right, there are some bad reasons. The reasons that we used to think were good...

GUPTA: Right.

COHEN: ...we had that kind of thinking you're talking about, but that has changed over time.

So here are some bad reasons for going on hormones. If you think that hormones are going to keep you forever young, that is just not true. That's been disproved over and over again. If you think that hormones are going to help you fight cancer or heart disease, and this used to be the common thinking, also not true. It actually is -- it's going to increase your risk, very likely, of getting either of those two diseases. So those are not good reasons to go on hormones.

GUPTA: So a woman's watching now and she's trying to put this all together. What does she need to keep in mind before deciding whether to take them or not?

COHEN: Right. If she decides to go on them, she has to do it with eyes wide open. She needs to know what all the risks are. And she needs to talk to her doctor about going on the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time. That's really important.

It's also really important to get the right doctor. You know this Sanjay, sometimes doctors, like let's say internists (ph)might prescribe hormones occasionally. They don't necessarily know all that much about hormones. You want to go to someone where this is the big part of their practice.

GUPTA: Right. And a lot more online as you mentioned about this -- a lot of people are interested. We get so many comments on this particular topic. Elizabeth Cohen, thanks so much.

COHEN: Thanks.

GUPTA: Make sure to check out Elizabeth's column as well, her tips at Every week there, of course, she writes about ways you can empower yourself to get the most out of your own health care.

Up next, a man trying to reach new heights is losing some weight in the process. We'll tell you what we're talking about. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL. You know, every week, we bring you weight loss success stories, proving that whether you have 20 pounds or 120 pounds to lose, you can succeed.

Today, we meet Bill McGahan, a man who turned an opportunity to connect with his teenage daughter into an amazing weight loss adventure. It's a good story. Here it is.


GUPTA (voice-over): Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the highest peaks in the world. An outstanding achievement for any climber. For Bill McGahan, it was an unusual way to lose weight and also a way to spend time with his daughter.

BILL MCGAHAN: Fathers who are about my age in the mid-40s, I think sometimes struggle to find things to do with their seventh grade daughters. They're typically into things they're not interested in.

GUPTA: After trolling the Internet for some ideas, dad and daughter settled on an ambitious plan.

B. MCGAHAN: We decided we'd climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

GUPTA: Working out three times a week, running seven miles a day and building intense lower body strength together, they scaled one of the highest peaks on the planet. Dad lost 30 pounds in the process.

B. MCGAHAN: We were about 100 yards from the top. And we knew we were going to make it. And I put my arm around Sarah and I said, you know, you did it Sarah. It even gets me a little misty now. And she said no, dad, we did it together. That's really one of -- you know, one of the great moments of my life.

GUPTA: So what did it mean to Sarah?

SARAH MCGAHAN, DAUGHTER OF BILL MCGAHAN: At first, I was really nervous and kind of freaked out about it. I love my dad and he's really funny. And I was glad to do with it him.


GUPTA: And you can read more about Bill's story online at Also, we want you to share your own weight loss success stories by submitting an i-Report. You can do it on the Fit Nation Web site. You could just end up being profiled.

Well, unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. Remember, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.