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Health Highlights: Jan. 9, 2008

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

3 People Dead After Drinking Listeria-Laden Milk From Mass.

Three elderly men have died and at least one pregnant woman has miscarried since last June after drinking bacteria-contaminated pasteurized milk from a dairy plant in Shrewsbury, Mass., the Associated Press reported.

All the victims were infected with listeria, which is supposed to be killed by pasteurization. This is believed to be only the third time listeria has been linked to pasteurized milk in the United States, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, state director of communicable disease control.

Tests have found no problems with the pasteurization process at the Whittier Farms plant, so investigators have turned their attention to the cooling and bottling machinery.

"We know something is going on; we just don't know what it is," DeMaria told the AP. "We just need to find out how the bacteria is getting into the milk."

Listeria can cause serious illness or death in the elderly, newborns, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. It is more commonly found in raw vegetables and meat and in processed foods such as cold cuts and soft cheeses. According to health officials, about 2,500 serious listeriosis cases are reported in the United States every year, the AP said.

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Nearly 1 Million Americans Treated for Shingles Annually

Each year, nearly 1 million Americans receive medical care for shingles or its complications, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Shingles is caused by infection with varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. But unlike chicken pox, shingles is not contagious. Shingles can result in burning or shooting pain, tingling or itching.

The AHRQ found that:

  • Americans make 2.1 million doctor visits a year due to shingles or its complications.
  • The average cost, including prescription medications, for treating shingles is $525 per person, or $566 million a year (in 2005 dollars).
  • Compared to younger people, those age 65 and older are seven times more likely to get shingles -- 1.5 percent vs. 0.2 percent.

The data in the reports comes from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

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Glowing Piglets Born to Cloned Pig in China

A cloned pig that was genetically altered to make it glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light has given birth to two piglets that inherited the same trait, Chinese researchers reported Wednesday.

This could be a step toward future breeding of pigs that can provide organs for human transplant, said the researchers at the Northeast Agricultural University in Harbin, the Associated Press reported.

The fact that two of the 11 piglets born to the cloned pig inherited the fluorescent green trait shows that transgenic pigs are fertile and able to pass on genetically engineered characteristics, said Liu Zhonghua, a professor overseeing the breeding program.

"Continued development of this technology can be applied to .... the production of special pigs for the production of human organs for transplant," Liu said in a prepared statement.

The ability to "genetically manipulate pigs in this way would be very valuable," Robin Lovell-Badge, a genetics expert at Britain's National Institute for Medical Research, told the AP.

But he added that he hadn't seen the Chinese research and couldn't comment on its credibility.

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Ethnicity Affects Asthma Test Results: Study

A child's ethnicity can affect the results of a common asthma test, says a Canadian study in the January issue of the journal Chest.

Healthy white, black and Asian children with no asthma showed wide variations in the amount of nitric oxide exhaled from the lungs, CBC News reported. Lungs produce nitric oxide when they're inflamed.

The study of 657 Ontario children in grades four to six found that white children had fractional concentrations of exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) of 13 parts per billion, black children had 18 parts per billion, and Asian children had 24 parts per billion.

"Doctors often assume that high FeNO levels mean that a child has asthma or, in a child who is already diagnosed with asthma, that the disease isn't very well controlled. It's important for them to realize that factors other than asthma can affect FeNO values," said lead researcher Tom Kovesi, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa and a pediatric respirologist at the Children's Hosptial of Eastern Ontario, CBC News reported.

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Climate Change Could Lead to Dengue Disease in U.S.

Climate change could lead to the appearance of incurable, mosquito-borne dengue disease in many areas of the United States, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warns in a commentary published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dengue fever is a flu-like illness that can cause fatal internal bleeding. It's especially dangerous to children and the elderly, Agence France-Presse reported.

"Widespread appearance of dengue in the continental United States is a real possibility," warned Dr. Anthony Fauci. He noted that the disease "is becoming a much more serious problem along the U.S.-Mexico border and in... Puerto Rico."

U.S. health officials need to take this threat seriously because there are no specific treatments or vaccines for dengue disease, the commentary said.

"Worldwide, dengue is among the most important reemerging infectious diseases with an estimated 50 to 100 million annual cases ... (and) 22,000 deaths," the commentary noted, AFP reported.

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Doctors Implant New Generation Pacemaker to Prevent Fainting

In what they say is a world-first, doctors in Great Britain implanted a new generation pacemaker designed to help people who suffer regular fainting incidents. The doctors at St. Mary's Hospital in London implanted the Biotronik Cylos 990 pacemaker in a 65-year-old man, BBC News reported.

The device detects subtle, early changes that indicate an impending fainting episode and then takes action to prevent it.

Pacemakers are a well-established therapy in a small group of people who experience a dramatic drop in heart rate before a fainting episode. However, pacemakers haven't been all that effective in a larger group of patients who don't have a marked drop in heart rate before regular fainting spells, BBC News reported.

This new pacemaker is designed to help those patients. It monitors the heart's right ventricle, the chamber into which blood returns after it's circulated through the body. If the pacemaker detects that the right ventricle has become unusually small -- a indication of an impending fainting episode -- it takes action to prevent it, the news service said.

The doctors said it will be six months to a year before they know whether the pacemaker has been fully successful in preventing fainting episodes, BBC News reported.

Posted: January 2008


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