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Health Highlights: Jan. 12, 2004

U.S. Blood Supplies Run Dangerously Low China's SARS Tally Seems to Grow by the Day Colon Cancer Drug Approved for Wider Use Discovery of Mucus Blocker Could Aid Asthma Fight Tacoma Tops Stressed-City List

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

U.S. Blood Supplies Run Dangerously Low

Blood supplies have fallen to critically low levels throughout much of the United States, prompting the nation's blood banks to appeal for immediate donations.

The national inventory levels have fallen well below a safe and adequate supply. Certain vital blood types are nearing depletion, and in some parts of the country elective surgeries are being postponed or cancelled, says the American Association of Blood Banks, America's Blood Centers and the American Red Cross.

The agencies say blood supplies traditionally run low in January, due to the holidays, travel schedules, bad weather and sickness.

People are asked to contact their local blood centers to make an appointment to donate. To donate blood, an individual must be healthy, at least 17 years old, weigh 110 pounds or more, and meet other donor requirements.

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China's SARS Tally Seems to Grow by the Day

Almost before Chinese officials could digest Sunday's announcement of a third suspected victim of SARS, there's word there may be yet another case, The New York Times reports.

The fourth possible case is sparking fears of a new outbreak of the sometimes deadly, highly contagious respiratory virus. Unconfirmed reports say the fourth possible case has just been discovered in the province of Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border. The three earlier cases -- either confirmed or suspected -- were reported in Guangzhou, 80 miles to the north.

The third suspected case involves a 35-year-old man with no history of travel to possible hotspots and no apparent contact with wild animals that might harbor SARS -- like the civet cat.

That has left Chinese and international health officials scratching their heads about the source of the new cases. The only confirmed instance of SARS since the summer has been a 32-year-old TV producer, who has since been pronounced cured and released from the hospital.

Officials from the World Health Organization spent the weekend combing the producer's apartment building, searching for a possible source of infection. He, too, has denied eating civet cat or coming in contact with other possible carriers.

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Colon Cancer Drug Approved for Wider Use

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the anti-cancer drug Eloxatin (oxaliplatin) for wider use in treatment of advanced colon cancer, manufacturer Sanofi-Synthelabo says.

Previously sanctioned when other forms of chemotherapy had failed, the drug is now approved for what's called "first-line" use.

When Eloxatin was approved for use -- in combination with other drugs -- to treat colon cancer in August 2002, the FDA said: "Although the individual drugs had very little effect, the combination resulted in a greater number of patients having tumor shrinkage and led to a delay in resumption of cancer growth."

The company says worldwide clinical trials are under way to see if the drug could be used to combat other forms of cancer, including those of the gastric tract and pancreas.

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Discovery of Mucus Blocker Could Aid Asthma Fight

An international team of researchers has discovered a compound that blocks the production of excessive mucus, which could point the way to better treatments for asthma, chronic bronchitis, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Scientists working with asthmatic mice found that excess mucus production could be sharply reduced or eliminated using a peptide called MANS. It blocks the protein that causes the excess secretion, the Associated Press reports. Mucus is a thick fluid produced by mucus membranes, which moistens and protects such areas as the digestive and nasal canals. Excess production of it in diseases such as asthma can block airways.

The findings were reported Sunday in the February online issue of the journal Nature Medicine. The research team was led by Kenneth B. Adler of North Carolina State University and included scientists from Pasteur Institute in Paris, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the School of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, Germany.

"These findings could be very important as far as providing direction to eventually lead to therapeutic treatment" of certain respiratory diseases, Adler told the wire service in an e-mail interview.

No side effects were noted in the mice, Adler said, but they were treated for less than an hour. Longer-term studies would be needed to assess the safety of the compound, he added. Nevertheless, depending on the dose, the chemical was effective in reducing excess mucus production in different types of mice, the research showed.

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Tacoma Tops Stressed-City List

Tacoma, Washington, which markets itself as "America's No. 1 Wired City," now has a dubious new title: "America's Most Stressed-Out City."

Beating out better-known cities like New York and Miami, the Northwest city of 195,000 topped the list of 100 large metro areas surveyed by ranking firm BestPlaces, according to the Seattle Times.

BestPlaces based the rankings on a "stress index" of factors that jangle nerves: unemployment rate, divorce rate, commute time, crimes, suicide rate, alcohol consumption, self-reported "poor mental health" and cloudy days.

Tacoma beat the rest mostly because of high rates of divorce, suicide and unemployment, the Times reports. With 12.4 percent of people over age 16 divorced, Tacoma's divorce rate falls in the 95th percentile. Its suicide rate is in the 92nd percentile. And its unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in the fall, well over the survey's average rate of 5.8 percent.

Rounding out the top 10 most stressful cities, in order, were Miami; New Orleans; Las Vegas; New York; Portland; Mobile, Ala.; Stockton-Lodi, Calif; Detroit, and Dallas.

The surveyors also offered up the least stressful cities. Tri-city areas Albany-Schenectady-Troy in New York and Harrisburg-Lebanon-Carlisle in Pennsylvania tied for best. High on the list also were Orange County, Calif.; Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

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