This month’s news features an exclusive on the Zika virus. There’s also some exciting news about virtual reality and a heads up before you stock up on vitamin D.

Vitamin D and asthma

News that taking vitamin D halves severe asthma attacks is encouraging for anyone who has this potentially life threatening condition. Before you stock up on vitamin D, you’ll need to know what dose to take. Unfortunately, the review of research that declared vitamin D to help asthmatics wasn’t able to recommend a dose. A low dose of vitamin D is generally safe and Public Health England have recommended that everyone considers taking 10micrograms a day –  but it’s not clear whether that is enough to help asthmatics. Too much vitamin D can lead to kidney problems. As is often the case more research is needed.

Zika News

Zika virus hit the news last year. As this new virus emerged in South America there was a sudden rise in babies born with abnormally small heads (microcephaly). Not only was there no cure for Zika, experts knew relatively little about it. How common is it? What are the symptoms? When pregnant women are infected how common are birth defects?

Early results from a cohort study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month shed more light on these questions. Pregnant women who attended a hospital in Rio de Janeiro with a rash were tested for zika virus. 72 out of 88 tested positive. Fever is a common symptom of zika infection but most women with zika in the study didn’t have a fever. The study’s authors warn that using a fever to diagnose zika could miss 70% of cases.

Hopes that birth defects from zika infection are less common than first thought seem to be sadly unfounded.  Abnormalities in the foetus were found in 29% of those with zika infection. These included growth restriction, microcephaly, brain defects and stillbirth. With this bad news the search for a vaccine or cure must remain a global priority.

Virtual reality with real results

Safety is paramount in healthcare so I always find it surprising when a new app or gadget is launched without being properly tested to see if really works or does harm. We expect this from new drugs, so why should apps or technology be any different? The problem is that clinical trials are expensive and take time – a big barrier for new drugs, but an even bigger one for fledgling entrepreneurs on a shoestring budget in a field that moves on very quickly.
Given these difficulties it was great to see a study about virtual reality in The Lancet this month. Researched used a virtual environment to see if they could help elderly people who suffer frequent falls. Participants walked on a treadmill in a virtual reality environment to simulate moving out of the way of obstacles. It seemed to work, with those using the virtual reality system falling about half as often than those who just had treadmill exercise.