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Health Headlines - October 13

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
U.S. Considers At-Home HIV Test

U.S. federal drug regulators will consider allowing the first U.S. sales of an at-home test for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The proposal for the OraQuick Advance Rapid HIV-1/2 Antibody Test, made by OraSure Technologies of Bethlehem, Pa., is scheduled to be discussed Nov. 3 by a federal advisory board. The company said that after the advisory board meeting it would likely apply formally to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to sell the at-home HIV test over-the-counter.

Currently, the test is sold only to clinics and doctors and has proven effective, safe and easy to use, The Times reported. The FDA would need to decide whether approving the test for at-home use is a good idea and whether ordinary people can understand the test's label well enough to use it themselves.

If the FDA approves the at-home HIV test, it would end 18 years of controversy. A 1987 application for an at-home HIV test was opposed by public health officials and AIDS advocates, who feared that an at-home test would lead to panic, widespread suicides and a rush to public health clinics, The Times reported.

However, improved drug treatments for AIDS now mean in many cases it's a chronic disease that can be managed for years. That means that there's less risk that a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS might prompt people to commit suicide.

In addition, U.S. federal officials are now more open to the idea that an at-home HIV test may help prevent the spread of the disease.

"If we're going to win the war against AIDS, we need to make HIV testing as easy as pregnancy testing," Dr. Freya Spielberg, a researcher at the Center for AIDS Research at the University of Washington, told the Times.

Turkish Fowl Infected with Deadly H5N1 Avian Flu Strain

The strain of avian flu found in Turkish poultry is the deadly H5N1 type that experts fear could mutate into a human virus and cause a global outbreak, the European Union (EU) said Thursday.

"We have received now confirmation that the virus found in Turkey is an avian flu H5N1 virus. There is a direct relationship with viruses found in Russia, Mongolia and China," EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou announced.

In Romania, samples taken from dead birds in the Danube delta have confirmed the presence of bird flu. Those samples are being sent to Britain for further analysis. At this point, there are no indications the Romanian birds are infected with the H5N1 strain, the Associated Press reported.

A quarantine has been imposed on the Romanian village where the infected fowl were found. Only authorities are allowed to enter and leave the village of Ceamurlia de Jos, located on the east side of the Danube delta, close to the Black Sea.

In an effort to prevent a human bird flu pandemic, some scientists have suggested that poultry workers and farmers in Asia be given the same vaccine that North Americans and Europeans receive in order to protect them from conventional flu.

This approach may help prevent the Asian farmers and poultry workers from becoming "mixing vessels" for human and bird flu strains and creating a strain that's easily transmitted from person to person, The New York Times reported.

However, other experts said it would be difficult to divert millions of flu shots from North Americans and Europeans who want the shots to protect them against flu this winter.

Company Cleared to Ship Flu Vaccine to U.S.

Chiron Corp, the second-largest supplier of flu shots in the United States, received U.S. Food and Drug Administration permission Wednesday to start shipping vaccine for the upcoming season.

The FDA approval comes just over a year after British regulators suspended Chiron's license to produce flu vaccine due to contamination problems at the company's plant in England. British regulators restored Chiron's license in March. The FDA approval was needed before the company could start shipping flu vaccine to the U.S., USA Today reported.

It's expected that Chiron will deliver 1.5 million doses of flu vaccine to U.S. distributors early next week. The company will continue to deliver flu vaccine to the United States through early December and plans to make 18 million to 26 million flu vaccine doses for U.S. use this year.

Chiron's contribution means there will be a total of 79 million to 97 million flu vaccine doses available in the United States this year. Sanofi Pasteur will provide 50 million to 60 million doses, GlaxoSmithKline will provide 8 million doses, and MedImmune will supply 3 million doses of a nasal spray flu vaccine, USA Today reported.

This production of flu vaccine will ease concerns about a repeat of last year's flu vaccine shortages in the U.S.

However, there are reports that delayed flu vaccine shipments to some doctors' offices and health departments are hindering efforts to vaccinate and protect high-risk patients, even as grocery stores are opening mass flu shot clinics, the Associated Press reported.

Flu shots in the U.S. were supposed to be reserved until October 24 for babies, the elderly, people with asthma and others at highest risk. After that date, flu shots were to be available to anyone.

However the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is receiving complaints that many high-risk people won't be able to receive a flu shot before Oct. 24, which means they'll have to compete with everyone else for flu shots, the AP reported.

Obesity Linked to Fat Gain in Muscles: Study

The muscles of obese people appear to be genetically prone to gathering fat, Duke University researchers say.

A fat-building enzyme called SCD1 is three-times more prevalent in obese people than in the muscles of lean people, the researchers wrote in the Oct. 12 issue of Cell Metabolism. The phenomenon continued even when obese participants' cells were removed from their bodies and grown in the lab, according to an account by the Scripps Howard News Service.

Senior author Deborah Muoio, an assistant professor of medicine, said the findings could explain why obese people often have such trouble losing weight and keeping it off. "The good news is it's possible to change your energy balance through exercise. Exercise can enhance muscle's ability to burn fat," the news service quoted her as saying.

The researchers found that levels of the SCD1 enzyme were linked with a person's tendency toward obesity and with diminished fat-burning within muscles.

"Obesity is a very complex disease, and this ... probably does not fully explain obesity, but we now know that SCD1 is at least a very important contributor," Muoio said.

Joan Kennedy Has Breast Cancer Surgery

Joan Kennedy was recovering Wednesday from breast cancer surgery, the Associated Press reported.

Kennedy, 69, is the former wife of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the mother of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). She underwent lumpectomy surgery Tuesday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, an unidentified source told the wire service.

Two of Joan Kennedy's three children have had cancer: Edward Kennedy Jr., who lost a leg to bone cancer in 1973; and Kara Kennedy Allen, who had a lung tumor removed in 2003, the wire service said.

Health Tip: Preventing Pinworms

Many children are affected by pinworms, a thin worm usually found in the anal and buttock area, according to the St. Louis Childrens Hospital.

Parents can usually see the wiggling motion of the worm, especially in the early morning or at night. Another clue may be itching of the anal and buttock area.

Infection is caused by swallowing pinworm eggs, but parents can reduce the risk by having the child wash his hands after using the restroom and before eating. Fingernails should remain short so eggs can't collect underneath them. Parents should also discourage thumb-sucking and eating food that has fallen on the floor. Children should be bathed each day, and their rooms and clothes should be cleaned to kill any present eggs.

Health Tip: Identifying Tonsillitis

Tonsils, pink tissue on both sides of the throat, can become infected and inflamed in some people, a condition called tonsillitis.

Here are some signs of tonsillitis, courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Red or swollen tonsils.
A hoarse voice.
Yellow or white coating on the tonsils.
A sore throat.
Pain swallowing.
Swollen glands
A fever.
Parents can see the tonsils by looking at the back of the child's throat with a flashlight. In some cases, the tonsils may have to be removed.

Four Children in Minnesota Contract Polio

Four children in an Amish community in Minnesota have contracted the polio virus — the first known infections in the U.S. in five years, state health officials said Thursday.

Dr. Harry Hull, the state epidemiologist, said the cases do not pose a threat to the general public because most people have been vaccinated against polio and are unlikely to have contact with Amish people. But he said he expects to find more infections within the Amish community because some of its members refuse immunizations on religious grounds.

None of the children have shown any symptoms of the paralyzing disease. About one in 200 people who contract the polio virus suffer paralysis because of it; others typically rid themselves the virus after weeks or months.

None of the four children had been vaccinated. Three are siblings; the fourth is a baby from another family.

The infection came to light when the baby was hospitalized for various health problems and underwent tests. Authorities then began testing other members of the community for the virus.

Officials would not identify the Amish community but said it consisted of 100 to 200 people.

Hull said the infections were traced to an oral vaccine that was administered in another country, probably within the past three years.

The use of oral polio vaccine containing the live virus was stopped in the United States in 2000. The live-virus vaccine caused an average of eight cases of polio a year in the United States. The U.S. and Canada now use an injected vaccine made from the killed virus.

State and federal officials are investigating how an infection from a vaccine given in another country reached Minnesota. Stool or saliva from an infected person can transmit the virus.

Health officials said they are working with the Amish community to determine who may have been exposed to the virus, and to encourage immunizations.

"We have been going house to house, talking with them about the risk, offering the vaccine and attempting to collect specimens to see if the virus has been spreading," Hull said. "Some families have said, `No, thank you, we do not want to interact with you at all.' Other families have said, `Sure, we'll get vaccinated. We'll provide specimens.'"

Without the community's cooperation, Hull said, there is a chance of an outbreak similar to one that occurred in 1979 in Amish communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Ten people were left paralyzed by the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The last naturally occurring case of polio in the United States was in 1979, and health officials consider the disease eliminated in the Western Hemisphere. It persists in other parts of the world, with the vast majority of cases concentrated in India, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization.

According to the CDC, more than 95 percent of U.S. children are vaccinated against polio by the time they enter school.

Food Fact:
Citrus alert.


If you're taking certain medications, your doctor will want to know if you're a grapefruit juice drinker. There's a chemical in grapefruit and grapefruit juice that inhibits the enzyme needed to break down many drugs, including antihistamines, calcium-channel blockers (used to treat high blood pressure), immunosuppressants (taken by organ-transplant patients), sedatives and protease inhibitors (treatment for AIDS). As a result, blood levels of these drugs may stay high, with serious side effects.

Fitness Tip of the day:
Meltdown meditation.


Everything's coming at you at once. Don't explode -- try a little yoga trick that can calm you down in an instant. Place one hand on your belly and breathe deep; exhale slowly. Relax your shoulders. As you breathe, gently push your belly out so your hand rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale.

FAQ of the day:
Is fish less nutritious if it's handled poorly?


Extended cooking, or cooking at a very high heat, can destroy heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as can exposure to light and air. Try not to overcook fish, and stay away from the deep-fat fish fry. It's better to bake, broil, poach, steam or grill until the fish is just done, no more.
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