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Health Highlights: May 21, 2014

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

Obama to Address VA Allegations

Allegations of serious problems at Veterans Affairs health facilities will be addressed by President Barack Obama after a White House meeting Wednesday morning with top officials.

The president was to meet with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Rob Nabors, a longtime Obama adviser who has been assigned to oversee a review of VA policies, the Associated Press reported.

There are allegations that as many as 40 veterans have died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital, and that a secret list of patients waiting for appointments was used to hide delays in care.

The White House says Obama continues to have confidence in Shinseki, whose resignation is being demanded by some lawmakers, the AP reported.

Under a bill being readied for a House vote Wednesday, Shinseki would be given more power to fire or demote about 450 VA officials who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions.

Late Tuesday, the VA's Office of Inspector General said the number of VA facilities under investigation in now 26, compared to 10 last week, the AP reported.

While the White House shares the bill's objectives of ensuring accountability at the VA, there are concerns about some of the details in the measure, according to presidential spokesman Jay Carney.

The VA has a "well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. He chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee and sponsored the bill.

Congress has an obligation to "give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things. That's what my bill would do," Miller said.

In related news, two Republican senators introduced a bill that would stop payment of bonuses to Veterans Health Administration employees through next year, the AP reported.

In February, the House passed a bill to do away with performance bonuses for the department's senior executive staff through 2018.


End Bird Flu Animal Experiments: Experts

Two American scientists are calling for an end to bird flu research in lab animals due to the possibility that the virus could escape and cause a worldwide outbreak.

The Harvard and Yale experts stated their objections in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine. They said the potential rewards of creating a new strain of bird flu in ferrets do not justify the risks, USA Today reported.

One of the authors was Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. He said mistakes have occurred before, and noted there is some evidence that a flu strain that's been common since the late 1970s was released by a Russian or Chinese lab.

"There really are a lot of things we can and are doing that are much more likely to yield benefits and also don't put anyone at risk," Lipsitch said, USA Today reported. "We should support safe and effective research rather than risky research."

However, researchers who conduct bird flu experiments with lab animals say their efforts improve understanding of bird flu in a way that would not be possible using other methods.


Portable Bed Handles Recalled After Three Deaths

About 113,000 portable bed handles for adults' beds are being recalled by Bed Handles Inc. because the products pose a serious risk and have been linked to three deaths, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

If attached to a bed without the use of safety retention straps, the handles can shift out of place and create a gap between the bed handle and the side of the mattress, resulting in a risk of entrapment, strangulation and death.

The three people who died became trapped between the bed handles and the mattress. They included two elderly women and a 41-year-old disabled woman, the CPSC said.

The recalled bed handles, which were sold from 1994 through 2007, do not have safety retention straps to secure them to the bed frame. The recalled models include the Original Bedside Assistant, the Travel Handles, sold as a set of two bed handles, and the Adjustable Bedside Assistant.

For more information, call Bed Handles Inc. at 1-800-725-6903 between 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or go to the company's website. Bed Handles is offering free safety retention straps for the recalled handles.


Chinese-Made Pet Jerky Treats Pulled From Petco Stores

Dog and cat jerky treats made in China will no longer be sold at Petco stores, the company says.

It announced Monday that all such products will be pulled from the more than 1,300 Petco stores across the United States by the end of the year, NBC News reported.

Petco is the first national pet retail chain to take such action. It comes days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that jerky treats -- mostly made in China -- had been linked with more than 1,000 dog deaths, nearly 5,000 illnesses in dogs and cats, and some cases of illness in people.

The Chinese-made jerky treats will be replaced by products made in the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and South America, NBC News reported.


Drug Official Says U.S. Faces 'Heroin Crisis'

The United States is facing a "nationwide heroin crisis," a top federal drug official warns.

The number of heroin addicts and abusers increased 75 percent in the last four years, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said Tuesday at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on U.S.-Mexican relations, the Associated Press reported.

While the U.S. has improved its ability to disrupt cocaine and methamphetamine supplies from Latin America, the amount of pure heroin entering the country has doubled, according to Brownfield, who heads the State Department's international narcotics and law enforcement unit.

Once mainly a problem in cities, law enforcement officials say heroin has spread to middle-class suburbs and rural areas, the AP reported.

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Posted: May 2014