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Health Highlights: Nov. 17, 2008

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

FDA to Open Offices in China

In an effort to improve the safety of imports destined for the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will open three offices in China this week. They are the first FDA offices outside of the United States, the Associated Press reported.

"Establishing a permanent FDA presence in China will greatly enhance the speed and effectiveness of our regulatory cooperation and our efforts to protect consumers in both countries," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a news release.

Thirteen FDA staffers will be assigned to the offices in China, but Leavitt didn't specify what their duties would be, the AP reported. The offices will be located in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Leavitt added he'll now focus on opening FDA offices in India and Central America.

The FDA had been under increasing pressure to open offices in China because of safety issues involving a wide range of products, including food and the blood thinner heparin.

In related news, the European Union and China agreed Monday to cooperate better on consumer safety, the AP reported.


Liver Cells Damaged by Drinking Water Levels of Arsenic

After being exposed to levels of arsenic that meet U.S. standards for drinking water, mice developed problems with liver cells that remove waste from the blood and enable nutrients to regulate metabolism.

The mice received 10 to 100 parts per billion of arsenic over a two-week period. This impaired the ability of specialized cells in the liver (sinusoidal endothelial cells) to remove damaged proteins from the blood. The cells also lost their characteristic pores, which severely limited their ability to exchange nutrients and waste, United Press International reported.

The University of Pittsburgh study was published online and in the Dec. 1 print issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

The current U.S. arsenic standard for drinking water is 10 parts per billion for sources that serve more than 20 people, UPI reported.


Hurricane Ike's Destruction Causes Hospital Cutbacks

Hurricane Ike's devastation is still being felt, even though the storm hit Galveston Island in Texas more than two months ago. The latest fallout, the New York Times reported, is the loss of 3,800 jobs from the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston's largest employer.

Those jobs represent one-third of the medical center's work force. The use of most of John Sealey Hospital, the main branch of the medical complex, which also includes a major trauma center and defense research center, has been lost, the newspaper reported.

Ike destroyed so many of the hospital's buildings that only the maternity ward remains open, the Times reported. The idea is to cut staff now and slowly rebuild the hospital and medical school during the next six months, significantly reducing a $40 million monthly loss since the hurricane hit in early September.

Karen H. Sexton, University of Texas vice president for hospitals and clinics, told the newspaper that there has been no emergency aid money from either the state or U.S. governments. Until that money comes, she said, the staff reductions were necessary. "We are committed to getting back into the health care business," she told the Times. "We know we have to be a lot smaller right now."

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Posted: November 2008