Health Highlights: Aug. 10, 2008

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Suspected E. coli Causes Nationwide Recall of 1.2 Million Pounds of Ground Beef

For the second time in a month, beef from a large Nebraska meat processor has been recalled... this time, 1.2 million pounds.

According to the Washington Post, the fresh ground beef, believed to contain the dangerous E. coli bacterium, was recalled from the upscale Whole Foods stores nationwide Saturday. The beef had been processed at Nebraska Beef of Omaha, one of the nation's largest meatpackers, the newspaper reported.

Just last month, 5 million pounds of beef produced by Nebraska Beef had to be recalled after nearly 50 cases of E. coli had been confirmed. The meat processor was allowed to continue operations after making a number of operational changes, according to the Associated Press.

But 31 new cases have been reported since Aug. 1 in 12 states and Washington, D.C., the Post reports. Seven people who became ill from E. coli O157:H7 had bought their meat at Whole Foods, the newspaper reports. Whole Foods Market issued a statement saying that ground beef bought from from June 2 to Aug. 6 should be thrown out.

Meanwhile, Nebraska Beef continues to operate while being observed by inspectors from the U.S. department of Agriculture. "We will continue to investigate to see what is happening at the plant to see what they have to do to get a handle on their food-safety issues," USDA spokeswoman Laura Reiser told the Post.

E. coli O157:H7 can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration, and in severe cases, kidney failure. Children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of serious infection.

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Gift Card Program Latest Effort to Reduce HIV/AIDS Incidence

Could a $25 gift card given to the right person help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS?

According to the Associated Press, U.S. government officials think it's worth trying, to the tune of $1.5 million.

With the latest statistics showing that the majority of HIV cases in the United States still occur among homosexual males, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reviving a 2005 North Carolina program that resulted in encouraging results for more young gay men practicing safe sex (using a condom), the A.P. reports.

According to the wire service, the North Carolina program was relatively simple: CDC officials would go to gay nightclubs and other places where gay men gathered in the Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro areas and find men who were popular, respected and had social standing. These men were given four $25 gift cards along with HIV/AIDS marketing materials and encouraged to promote safe sex among their peers, the wire service said.

This simple experiment had good results, the A.P. said. Surveys of 300 men in the three North Carolina communities found a 32 percent reduction in unprotected sex and a 40 percent reduction in the average number of sexual partners, the wire service reported. The CDC is going to try the program now in about 200 communities over a two year period, the A.P. reported.

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Interaction Between Cholesterol, Heart Meds May Cause Muscle Damage

People who take the anti-cholesterol drugs Zocor (generic: simvastatin) or Vytorin along with a medication to control irregular heartbeat are at increased risk of severe muscle damage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Friday.

Zocor and Vytorin, which contains the active ingredient in Zocor, are statins, and muscle damage is a known but rare side effect of the drugs. The heart rhythm drug is called either Cordarone or Pacerone (generic: amiodarone). The danger rises among those who take more than 20 milligrams daily of the cholesterol drugs, according to the agency warning cited by the Associated Press.

The FDA first warned in 2002 about an interaction between the two types of medications, but that hasn't prevented the problem, the AP reported. Over the past six years, the agency has gathered 52 reports of serious muscle damage among people who took both medicines.

Most of those injuries required hospitalization, the wire service said.

The FDA warned that people who are taking the heart rhythm drug should switch to a different statin to control cholesterol.

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Pandemic Flu Biggest Threat to U.K.: Report

The most serious danger facing the U.K. over the next five years is pandemic flu, not terrorism, according to a national threat assessment released Friday by Britain's Cabinet Office.

The document's authors assessed the level of risk posed by a number of threats, including terrorism, extreme weather, climate change and pandemic flu, the Associated Press reported.

The document doesn't actually rank the threats in order of seriousness, but does say that pandemic flu is considered the most pressing concern, according to a Cabinet Office spokeswoman.

Previous government assessments concluded that a pandemic flu outbreak could kill as many as 750,000 people in Britain and that it could take as long as several months to develop vaccines to deal with a specific strain of the virus, the AP reported.

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Study Examines Possible Link Between Gluten/Dairy Products and Autism

A study to investigate whether gluten or dairy products contribute to autistic behavior is being conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston.

The double-blind clinical study will include 38 autistic children, ages 3 to 9. All of them will be taken off gluten (a protein in wheat) and dairy products before the start of the four-week study. When the study begins, half the children will be given gluten/milk powder and half will be given a placebo powder, United Press International reported.

Some parents of autistic children believe casomorphin (a peptide in milk) and gliadomorphin (a peptide in gluten) affect their children's behavior.

"There's a lot of misinformation, so that's why this study is so important. Hundreds and hundreds of parents think [changing diet] works but we need serious evidence," lead investigator Dr. Fernando Navarro said in a news release cited by UPI.

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Fertility Treatments Offer Little Benefit For Some Couples

The infertility drug clomifene citrate and artificial insemination do little to help certain couples who can't have children naturally, according to Scottish researchers.

Their study included 580 couples who had no obvious reasons for their inability to conceive. The couples were divided into three groups and received either the drug, artificial insemination, or no treatment. There was little difference between the three groups in the numbers of women who had babies, the Associated Press reported.

Women in the clomifene citrate group had 26 babies, compared to 32 babies in the no-treatment group and 43 babies in the artificial insemination group. The findings appear in the British Medical Journal.

"These treatments are a leap of faith," said lead author Dr. Siladitya Bhattacharya, a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Aberdeen, the AP reported. "None of the treatments studied had any significant benefit over no treatment at all."

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Posted: August 2008


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