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Autism, Behavioral Science, Events, Stanford News

Thinking in pictures: Stanford hosts Temple Grandin

Thinking in pictures: Stanford hosts Temple Grandin

Grandin Temple - smallEarlier this week, I got to hear a presentation by Colorado State University animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, PhD, who is widely known not just for her extensive work to enhance animal welfare, but also because she is one of the world’s most prominent individuals with autism. Like many others, I first became familiar with Grandin’s work through Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars. (The title came from Grandin’s description of how she feels when trying to decode the subtleties of social interactions.) Since I first read Sacks’ book, I’ve written frequently about autism research and treatment, and I’ve gotten some sense of how phenomenally important Grandin is to the autism community. So it was quite a thrill to be sitting just a few feet from her as she spoke to an overflow crowd at the School of Medicine.

Grandin’s talk focused on understanding animal behavior and reducing animals’ stress, but she interwove descriptions of her research with comments on how living with autism has influenced her work – and, indeed, how it influences the world around us. “A little bit of autism gives you Silicon Valley,” she quipped in the introduction to her talk. Although her subject was animals’ stress, at the heart, she was explaining different ways of thinking: in words or in pictures.

Animals think in pictures, especially when it comes to determining which elements of their environment are stressful or frightening, Grandin said: “Animals are all about sensory detail, little bits of detail we tend not to notice.” At one point in the talk, she showed a photo of a cow bending forward to investigate a spot of sunlight on the floor of the room where it was about to have a veterinary exam. To a human, this spot would likely seem insignificant, but to the cow, it is a foreign object that needs to be approached with caution.

“Novelty is a strong stressor for animals,” Grandin said, adding that if something visually new is forced in an animal’s face, it’s scary. The cow in the photo needs a few minutes to sniff the sun spot and figure out that it’s harmless; a human trying to force the situation will soon have a frightened, resistant animal to handle. Humans also have to keep in mind that our word-oriented brains may not categorize “novelty” in the same way that an animal does. For instance, an animal that has become accustomed to the sight of a blue-and-white umbrella may still be frightened by an orange tarp, Grandin said. To people, they’re both rain protection, but to a horse or cow, “It’s a different picture!”

Like many children with autism, Grandin began speaking later than most kids, and she still thinks in images more intuitively than words. “I see movies in my imagination, and this helped me understand animals,” she said. She likened her memory to Google Images, explaining that for her, a particular word will pull up many associated images, categorized by type. Her designs for meat-processing plants, now in use in half of the meat-processing facilities in North America, rely on her ability to mentally take a “cattle’s-eye view” of each step in the animal’s journey before slaughter, playing out a movie in her head that shows her where animals could be forced to encounter new things that might frighten them.

As well as describing her own work, Grandin advocated for broader acceptance of different kinds of thinkers, both with and without autism. People may think predominantly in pictures, or in patterns (that’s the math whizzes among us), or in words, she said, and we need educational and employment systems that can nurture and benefit from each of these ways of thinking. “There is too much emphasis on deficits [of children with autism], and not enough on building their strengths,” she said.

Grandin’s complete talk, which was hosted by the Department of Comparative Medicine, will soon be available on the department’s news website.

Previously: A conversation with autism activist and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, Growing up with an autistic sibling: “My sister has a little cup” and Finding of reduced brain flexibility adds to Stanford research on how the autistic brain is organized
Photo by Rosalie Winard

Patient Care, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Better communication between caregivers reduces medical errors, study finds

Better communication between caregivers reduces medical errors, study finds

Miscommunication between caregivers is one of the largest causes of medical errors, but a new study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the problem is at least partly preventable.

The study at nine children’s hospitals, led by Boston Children’s Hospital and including our own Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, tested the effects of a standardized method for medical residents to hand off information about their patients at shift changes. Shorter shifts for residents have increased the number of such hand-offs, putting the hand-offs themselves under more scrutiny in recent years.

At each participating hospital, medical residents were trained to use an acronym that reminded them what information to share about each patient, and in what order. The hand-off process included both oral and written communication, and ended with the person who was receiving the information repeating back a summary of what was shared with the person who gave it. The program also included other supports to ensure that the hand-off procedure was embedded in the hospital’s culture and did not have a negative effect on the doctors’ overall workflow.

The participating hospitals reduced their rate of medical errors by 23 percent, and preventable adverse events dropped by 30 percent. From a Boston Children’s press release about the research:

“Because we know that miscommunications so commonly lead to serious medical errors, and because the frequency of handoffs in the hospital is increasing, there is no question that high-quality handoff improvement programs need to be a top priority for hospitals,” says [lead study author Amy] Starmer. “It’s tremendously exciting to finally have a comprehensive and rigorously tested training program that has been proven to be associated with safer care and that meets this need for our patients.”

The program tested in the new research is available for free to any hospital that wants to implement it.

Previously: New study shows standardization makes hospital hand-offs safer, Less burnout, better safety culture in hospitals with hands-on executives, new study shows and Automated safety checklists prevent hospital-acquired infections, Stanford team finds

Pregnancy, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth

Stanford/VA study finds link between PTSD and premature birth

pregnant-silhouetteScientists have long suspected that post-traumatic stress disorder raises a pregnant woman’s risk of giving birth prematurely. Now, new research from Stanford and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs confirms these suspicions.

Women with “active” PTSD, diagnosed in the year before they gave birth, were 35 percent more likely than those without PTSD to spontaneously go into labor early and deliver a premature baby, the study found. Women whose PTSD had been diagnosed further in the past were not at increased risk, however.

The findings, published today in Obstetrics & Gynecology, are based on data from 16,344 births to female veterans. All of the women had been screened for PTSD. The researchers found that 3,049 babies were born to women diagnosed with the disorder at some point prior to delivery, and of these, 1,921 births were to women who had active PTSD.

“This study gives us a convincing epidemiological basis to say that, yes, PTSD is a risk factor for preterm delivery,” the study’s senior author, Ciaran Phibbs, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics and an investigator at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University, said in a press release. “Mothers with PTSD should be treated as having high-risk pregnancies.”

The VA has already adopted Phibbs’ recommendation for their patients and is now including a recent PTSD diagnosis among the factors that flag a woman’s pregnancy as high-risk. But the findings aren’t just for veterans, Phibbs told me. “The prevalence of PTSD is higher among veterans, but it’s still reasonably common in the general population,” he said. Nor was the PTSD-prematurity link limited to women with combat experience, he said. Half of the women in the study who had PTSD diagnoses had never been deployed.

Spontaneous premature labor, the focus of this study, accounts for about half of premature births. Phibbs’ team is now investigating the other half of preterm births: They are examining whether PTSD also influences a mother’s risk of developing medical conditions that could cause her physician to recommend an early delivery for the sake of the mother’s or baby’s health.

Previously: Maternal obesity linked to earliest premature births, says Stanford studyThe year in the life of a preemie – and his parents and How Stanford researchers are working to understand the complexities of preterm birth
Photo by Stefan Pasch

Autism, Behavioral Science, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Study validates oxytocin levels in blood and suggests oxytocin may be a biomarker of anxiety

Study validates oxytocin levels in blood and suggests oxytocin may be a biomarker of anxiety

Karen Parker Oxytocin, sometimes dubbed “the love hormone,” can be tricky to study in humans. To conduct research on the connection between oxytocin and emotion, scientists want to assess the hormone’s levels in the brain. But sampling cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid bathing the brain, requires an invasive technique called a lumbar puncture. Measuring blood oxytocin is much easier, but some researchers have questioned whether blood oxytocin levels truly reflect what’s happening in the brain.

A new Stanford study simplifies the problem: It is the first research in children, and some of the first in any age group of humans, to indicate that blood and CSF oxytocin levels track together. The research also found a correlation between low-oxytocin and high-anxiety levels in children, adding to findings from animal studies and adult humans that have documented this oxytocin-anxiety link. The paper appears today in Molecular Psychiatry.

The findings raise the possibility that oxytocin could be considered as a therapeutic target across a variety of psychiatric disorders

The researchers recruited 27 volunteers from among a group of patients who needed lumbar puncture for medical reasons. The volunteers agreed to have oxytocin levels measured in their blood and CSF, and the parents of 10 children in the study answered questions about their children’s anxiety levels. From our press releaseabout the research:

“So many psychiatric disorders involve disruptions to social functioning,” said the study’s senior author, Karen Parker, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “This study helps scientifically validate the use of measuring oxytocin in the blood, and suggests that oxytocin may be a biomarker of anxiety. It raises the possibility that oxytocin could be considered as a therapeutic target across a variety of psychiatric disorders.”

Parker’s team is now conducting studies of possible therapeutic uses of oxytocin in children with autism. They recently published a paper demonstrating that autism is not a disease of oxytocin deficiency per se; instead, oxytocin levels in kids with autism fall across a broad range. The findings hint at a future in which patients’ oxytocin levels could be used to guide treatment for autism or other psychiatric or developmental disorders. As Dean Carson, PhD, the lead author of the new study, explained:

“Our belief is that there are oxytocin responders and nonresponders,” Carson said, adding that the team is now testing this hypothesis.

…“Being able to have objective measures of psychiatric illness really will enhance early diagnosis and measures of treatment outcomes,” Carson said.

Previously: Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Study shows oxytocin may boost happiness among women
Photo of Karen Parker by Norbert von der Groeben

Autoimmune Disease, Behavioral Science, Immunology, Pediatrics, Research

What happens when the immune system attacks the brain? Stanford doctors investigate

What happens when the immune system attacks the brain? Stanford doctors investigate

SM PANS image - smallerThe first time he flew into a psychotic rage, Paul Michael Nelson was only 7 years old. He stabbed at a door in his family’s home with a knife, tore at blankets with his teeth, spoke in gibberish. His very worried parents, Paul and Mary Nelson, rushed him to their local emergency room, where the medical staff thought that perhaps the little boy had simply had a bad temper tantrum.

But his rages got worse. Over the weeks and months that followed the first March 2009 emergency room visit, as Paul Michael cycled in and out of psychiatric hospitals, his parents and doctors struggled to understand what was wrong. Finally, they came to a surprising conclusion: Paul Michael had an autoimmune disease. His immune system appeared to be attacking his brain.

As strange as the case seems, the Nelsons are far from alone. As I describe in a recent story for Stanford Medicine magazine, Paul Michael was the first of more than 70 children who have been evaluated at a new clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford for pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, a disease (or, more likely, a group of diseases) that doctors are still working to define. The suddenness and severity of the syndrome are frightening. Healthy children abruptly begin to show psychiatric symptoms that can include severe obsessive-compulsive behavior; anorexia; intense separation anxiety at the thought of being away from a parent; deterioration in their school work, and many other problems. From my story:

“In some ways, it’s like having your kid suddenly become an Alzheimer’s patient, or like having your child revert back to being a toddler,” says Jennifer Frankovich, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatric rheumatology at the School of Medicine and one of the clinic’s founders.

“We can’t say how many kids with psychiatric symptoms have an underlying immune or inflammatory component to their disorder, but given the burgeoning research indicating that inflammation drives mood disorders and other psychiatric problems, it’s likely to be a large subset of children and even adults diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses,” says Kiki Chang, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

To shed light on the disease, Frankovich and Chang are working with scientists from around the world on defining the parameters of the illness and launching urgently-needed research. In a special issue of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology that published online this month, the researchers lay out several aspects of the problem. The Stanford experts are co-authors of a scientific article describing how doctors should evaluate children with the disease, known by its acronym, PANS. Other researchers have written about disordered eating in PANS and given a detailed description of the disease phenotype.

Recognition and treatment of the disease are still an uphill battle, but the growth of research efforts is a hopeful step. As Frankovich says at the conclusion of the Stanford Medicine story, “We cannot give up on this. There are so many of these cases out there.”

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system and My descent into madness – a conversation with author Susannah Cahalan
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

Autism, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Parents can learn autism therapy in groups to improve kids’ verbal skills, Stanford study shows

Parents can learn autism therapy in groups to improve kids' verbal skills, Stanford study shows

HoldingHandsAutism is more than twice as common than it was 15 years ago. But the number of clinicians who treat the developmental disorder is growing more slowly than the number of new cases, prompting caregivers to look for novel ways to share their expertise as widely as possible.

One possible approach: Teach groups of parents an autism therapy they can deliver at home. A new study from Stanford and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found that small groups of parents could learn to deliver a scientifically validated autism treatment to their own children in a short series of classes.

The therapy, called pivotal response training, which has been validated in several prior studies, was targeted to kids’ language skills. The therapy gives parents a structured method for nurturing children’s verbal skills during everyday interactions.

The approach of having parents give treatment is meant to complement, not replace, one-on-one therapy with autism professionals. But it can still be valuable to children and their families, as our press release explains:

“There are two benefits: The child can make progress, and the parents leave the treatment program better equipped to facilitate the child’s development over the course of their daily routines,” said study co-author Grace Gengoux, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a psychologist specializing in autism treatment at the hospital. “The ways that parents instinctually interact with children to guide language development may not work for a child with autism, which can frustrate parents. Other studies have shown that learning this treatment reduces parents’ stress and improves their happiness. Parents benefit from knowing how to help their children learn.”

… To use the treatment for building language skills, parents identify something the child wants and systematically reward the child for trying to talk about it. For instance, if the child reaches for a ball, the parent says, “Do you want the ball? Say ‘ball.’”

“The child might say ‘ba,’ and you reward him by giving him the ball,” [lead author Antonio] Hardan, MD, said. “Parents can create opportunities for this treatment to work at the dinner table, in the park, in the car, while they’re out for a walk.”

The researchers are now following up with studies that will give them more information about which children and families are most likely to benefit from this therapeutic approach.

Previously: Using Google Glass to help individuals with autism better understand social cues, Using theater’s sensory experience to help children with autism and “No, I’m not ready yet”: A sister’s translation for her brother with autism
Photo by Wilson X

Immunology, In the News, Parenting, Pediatrics

Ivy and Bean help encourage kids to get vaccinated

Ivy and Bean help encourage kids to get vaccinated

Ivy and Bean2Last week, I took my two little boys to get their shots, including the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Although, as a mom, it’s easy for me to understand the value of vaccines, I’m not sure my preschooler was completely convinced that getting poked in the arm was a great idea.

That’s why I am thrilled to see “Ivy and Bean vs. The Measles,” a set of posters and other educational materials that Sophie Blackall, the illustrator of the popular series of children’s books, has produced in collaboration with the Measles and Rubella Initiative. Blackall’s illustrations show Bean, one of the book’s two heroines, devising a series of unconventional strategies for avoiding the measles: wear a biohazard suit for the rest of your life, get adopted by a polar bear, or (my personal favorite) cover yourself in a 6-inch protective layer of lard.

“Or,” says Ivy, “get vaccinated!”

My son would probably be most interested in Bean’s suggestion to “Move to the moon!” He loves all things outer space-related, and I love the idea of finding something at our doctor’s office that would spark his interest and help me explain to him why he needs that brief poke in the arm.

Bravo, Ivy and Bean!

Via Shots
Previously: Side effects of childhood vaccines are extremely rare, new study finds, Measles is disappearing from the Western hemisphere and Tips for parents on back-to-school vaccinations
Artwork by Sophie Blackall

Behavioral Science, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Families can help their teens recover from anorexia, new study shows

Families can help their teens recover from anorexia, new study shows

anorexia-appleUpdated 10-2-14: In a just-published 1:2:1 podcast, Lock discusses this work in depth.

***

9-24-14: A large new study comparing two treatments for anorexia nervosa offers a hopeful message to parents of teens affected by the eating disorder: Families can work with therapists to help their children recover.

The study, which appears today in JAMA Psychiatry and was led by Stanford’s Stewart Agras, MD, was the first large randomized clinical trial to compare two forms of family-based treatment for anorexia. The study included 167 anorexia patients, aged 12 to 18, at six medical centers in the United States and Canada.

In both treatments tested, a trained therapist met regularly with the patient and at least one other member of his or her family. One type of therapy focused on teaching parents how to get their child eating again at home, a method that Agras and Stanford eating disorder expert James Lock, MD, PhD, have researched extensively in the past. The other approach was broader, with the therapist and the family exploring problems in family dynamics and how to solve them. Patients and families in both treatment groups received 16 one-hour therapy sessions over a nine-month period, and patients’ recovery was assessed at the end of the therapy and again one year later.

Both therapies were equally effective in the long run, but the approach that focused on feeding was faster, and patients in that group were hospitalized fewer days during their treatment, which also made this method less expensive. The findings add to a growing list of scientific studies that are changing how physicians think about the families of patients with eating disorders, as our press release explains:

“For a long time, people blamed families for causing anorexia and thought they should be left out of treatment,” said Lock. “But this study suggests that, however you involve them, families can be useful, and that more focused family treatment works faster and more cost-effectively for most patients.” Lock directs the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

The need for good treatments for anorexia in teens is bolstered by prior research demonstrating that the disease becomes more difficult to treat in adulthood, as Agras noted:

“The longer anorexia goes on, the more difficult it is to treat,” he said. “A great many people live chronically restricted lives because of this disease — they plan their days around undereating and overexercise — and quite a few die. The idea is to treat the disorder in adolescence to prevent more adults from becoming anorexic.”

Lock is the c0-author of the book Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder, which is designed to help parents conduct the feeding-based treatment examined in this study. Lock and Agras have both contributed to textbooks and manuals on eating disorder treatment for health care professionals.

Previously: Stanford study investigates how to prevent moms from passing on eating disorders, A growing consensus for revamping anorexia nervosa treatment and Possible predictors of longer-term recovery from eating disorders
Photo by Santiago Alvarez

CDC, In the News, Infectious Disease, Neuroscience, Pediatrics

Stanford experts offer more information about enterovirus-D68

Stanford experts offer more information about enterovirus-D68

Below is an updated version of an entry that was originally posted on Sept. 26.

SONY DSCLast week, the California Department of Public Health confirmed that the season’s first four cases of enterovirus-D68 respiratory illness had been found in the state, three in San Diego County and one in Ventura County, with more expected to surface. As of Sept. 29, this makes California one of 40 states across the nation to be affected by EV-D68.

Health officials in Colorado are now investigating a handful of cases of paralysis in children there; the paralysis began a few weeks after respiratory illness and appears to be connected to EV-D68. Since the same virus was tentatively linked to paralysis cases in California children earlier this year, California officials are monitoring the situation closely.

Below, Yvonne Maldonado, MD, service chief of pediatric infectious disease at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, answers additional questions about the respiratory symptoms caused by this virus. Keith Van Haren, MD, a pediatric neurologist who has been assisting closely with the California Department of Public Health’s investigation, also comments on neurologic symptoms that might be associated with the virus.

Enteroviruses are not unusual. Why is there so much focus from health officials on this one, EV-D68?

Maldonado: The good news is that this virus comes from a very common family of viruses that cause most fever-producing illnesses in childhood. But it’s been more severe than other enteroviruses. Some hospitals in other parts of the country have had hundreds of children coming to their emergency departments with really bad respiratory symptoms. The fact that it’s been so highly symptomatic and that there has been a large volume of cases is why it has gotten so much attention.

Van Haren: It’s important to remember that most children and adults who are exposed to enteroviruses don’t get sick at all. A smaller percentage come down with fever and/or respiratory symptoms, as Dr. Maldonado has described. And as far as we can tell, it’s only a very, very small number of children, if any, who get paralysis, typically affecting one arm or leg. The Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health are still investigating to try to determine conclusively whether EV-D68 is causing neurologic symptoms, such as paralysis.

What do we know about the course of possible neurologic symptoms of EV-D68 and their potential treatments?

Van Haren: We’re still learning about the possible neurologic symptoms and how we might treat them. To start, we have a growing suspicion that EV-D68 may be associated with paralysis. In the patients we’ve seen with paralysis, progression of weakness appears to stop on its own, and recovery of strength is very slow and usually incomplete.

Which groups are most at risk?

Maldonado: Children with a history of asthma have been reported to have especially bad respiratory symptoms with this virus. It can affect kids of all ages, from infants to teens. So far, only one case has been reported in an adult, which makes sense because adults are more likely to have immunity to enteroviruses. We do worry more about young infants than older children, just because they probably haven’t seen the virus before and can get worse respiratory symptoms with these viral infections.

Van Haren: We don’t yet know who is most at risk for paralysis or other neurologic symptoms, but we are studying this carefully to find out why some children get sick and some do not. So far, it seems that the children who have been affected by paralysis were generally healthy prior to their illness.

What is the treatment for EV-D68?

Maldonado: There is no treatment that is specific to the virus. At home, parents can manage children’s fevers with over-the-counter medications, make sure they drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration, and help them get plenty of rest. For children who are very ill, doctors will check for secondary illnesses such as bacterial pneumonia, which would be treated with antibiotics, and may hospitalize children who need oxygen or IV hydration to help them recover.

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Health and Fitness, Nutrition, Pediatrics, Public Health

Pediatrics group issues new recommendations for building strong bones in kids

Pediatrics group issues new recommendations for building strong bones in kids

MilkshelfOur bones function as retirement-savings accounts for calcium: We deposit the mineral into our bones when we’re young, then draw on the stores as we age. Too little calcium in the “savings account” puts people at risk for osteoporosis and debilitating bone fractures later in life.

This means that, although osteoporosis is usually seen as a disease of old age, pediatricians and parents need to pay attention to bone health. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidelines for pediatricians on how nutrition and exercise can improve bone density in their patients. The guidelines were co-authored by Stanford’s Neville Golden, MD, who is also an adolescent medicine specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. The report discusses calcium, which strengthens bones; vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium; and weight-bearing exercise, which promotes calcium deposition into the bones.

In addition to protecting against fractures in old age, the guidelines address the needs of kids whose bones are weakened by a variety of childhood and adolescent medical conditions, including juvenile osteoporosis, cystic fibrosis, lupus, celiac disease, cerebral palsy and anorexia nervosa.

A few highlights from the recommendations:

  • Children and adolescents should get their calcium mostly from food, not supplements. To meet calcium requirements, the committee recommends three or four daily servings of dairy foods (depending on the child’s age) and also suggests alternative food sources such as dark green veggies, beans, and calcium-fortified orange juice or breakfast cereals.
  • Vitamin D recommendations went up in 2011; the AAP agrees with the increased recommendations for all children and notes that kids using certain medications have even higher requirements than healthy children. Although the body can make vitamin D from sunlight, the report notes that kids are spending more time indoors and that sunscreen prevents vitamin D synthesis, making children more reliant on food and supplements to get enough vitamin D.
  • Soda often displaces milk in children’s diets, adding bone health to the list of reasons doctors should discourage soda consumption.
  • Weight-bearing exercise helps strengthen the bones. The report recommends activities such as walking, jogging, jumping and dancing over exercises such as swimming and cycling for building bone health.
  • Adolescent girls with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and the female athlete triad experience bone loss. In the past, some physicians have suggested that these young women could improve their bone density by taking oral contraceptives, but the report notes that randomized controlled trials have not found any evidence that oral contraceptives increase bone mass for these patients.

Previously: Goo inside bones provides structural support, study finds, New genetic regions associated with osteoporosis and bone fracture and Avoiding sun exposure may lead to vitamin D deficiency in Caucasians
Photo by Stephanie Booth

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