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Health Highlights: August 7, 2002

West Nile Spread Continues FDA Panel Advises Hep B Drug Approval Report Details National Nursing Shortage Separated Twins on Breathing Tubes, Reported Doing Well Cheesecake Factory Recalls Namesake Aspirin May Ward Off Pancreatic Cancer

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

West Nile Spread Continues

Concerns about the outbreak of West Nile virus continued today with reports of new cases in Alabama and as far north as Illinois, and a possible case in Florida.

The virus has so far killed five people in Louisiana, and at least 100 others have been confirmed to have the mosquito-borne disease in what's being called the worst outbreak of west Nile in the U.S. since it first appeared in 1999.

Health officials say the latest case was reported in Alabama, where a 72-year-old man beacme the first to be diagnosed this year in that state. And the possible case in Florida involves an 18-year-old Crescent Beach woman who was being tested after developing many of the flu-like signs of the virus, reports MSNBC.

In Illinois, authorities say a 22-year-old Maryland woman contracted the virus while living in the Chicago area earlier this summer in the first such reporting of West Nile in that state.

In that case, and in the case of a Louisiana man who fell ill from the disease while visiting in Washington state, both victims only had mild symptoms and have recovered.

Most people bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus will not become noticeably ill, and only about one-in-150 people - - typically the elderly or sick - - will develop serious complications such as meningitis and encephalitis, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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FDA Panel Advises Hep B Drug Approval

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has voted to recommend approval of a new drug that would give doctors an important new tool in treating hepatitis B.

The drug, called adefovir dipivoxil, was actually developed as a treatment for AIDS, but was rejected because of possible damage to the kidneys. But in lower and safer doses, the drug has been shown to be effective against hepatitis B, reports the Washington Post.

About 1 million Americans suffer from the life-threatening, chronic liver ailment. Hepatitis B and C are the leading causes of liver transplants in this country, and many people die while awaiting donor livers.

While the FDA isn't required to follow panels' recommendations, the agency usually does. The drug's maker, Gilead Sciences Inc., of Foster City, Calif., says that with FDA approval, it hopes to put the drug on the market by the end of the year.

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Report Details National Nursing Shortage

A new report detailing the extent of the nation's nursing shortage suggests that the crisis has even contributed to patient injuries and deaths over the past five years.

The report, prepared by the Joint Commission on Accreditation, indicates that in a full 24 percent of the 1,609 cases of death, injury permanent loss of function reported to the agency, nursing shortages have played a role, reports the Associated Press.

Details of specific instances aren't given, but the report says that as many as 90 percent of long-term care organizations are without sufficient nursing staffs, and 126,000 nursing positions are currently unfilled in hospitals around the nation.

By the year 2020, there could be 400,000 fewer nurses available to provide care than will be needed, warns the report.

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Separated Twins on Breathing Tubes, Doing Well

Guatemalan twin girls are spending their first full day as physically separated sisters today. Their doctor says the 1-year-old pair, formerly joined at the head, remain in critical condition at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. They are expected to use breathing tubes for at least the next several days, reports the Associated Press.

Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez and her sister, Maria de Jesus, were separated in a 22-hour operation that ended early yesterday. Some four hours later, Maria Teresa returned to the operating room for five hours to relieve a buildup of blood on her brain. That second surgery is not expected to affect her long-term prognosis.

It won't be known for about a week whether the two may have suffered any brain damage during the surgery, their doctor says. The girls had been attached at the top of the skull and faced opposite directions. The riskiest part of the operation came when doctors separated the veins that connected their heads, the AP reports.

Both girls still face follow-up surgeries to reconstruct the tops of their skulls.

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Cheesecake Factory Recalls Namesake

The Cheesecake Factory Inc. says it has recalled cheesecakes that may have been contaminated with listeria monocytogenes.

A single batch of white chocolate raspberry cheesecakes sold to the Olive Garden restaurant chain may have been contaminated, the Cheesecake Factory says. The affected product may have been served in as many as 19 Olive Garden restaurants in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

The problem was discovered July 31, and the Olive Garden chain says it destroyed all batches of cheesecake the next day. Neither company has received any reports of illness.

Listeria is a potentially fatal bacteria that can cause listeriosis, with symptoms that include fever, headache, abdominal pain and diarrhea. The disease, which can take as long as six weeks to show any symptoms, can be fatal in people with weak immune systems.

For questions or more information, contact the Cheesecake Factory at 1-888-290-9437.

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Aspirin May Ward Off Pancreatic Cancer

A new study adds to aspirin's impressive list of accomplishments by finding that women who take the drug are less likely to get cancer of the pancreas, reports HealthDay.

Aspirin's role as a preventive medication isn't a new one. It's already used to prevent heart disease, and other studies have found it may help ward off colon cancer. In the latest work, appearing in today's issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers from the University of Minnesota report that women who use aspirin have a 43 percent lower risk of pancreatic cancer than women who don't.

"There is no one magic pill that's a cure-all, but it's encouraging that aspirin use may be protective for pancreatic cancer -- and it may tell us something about this disease for which we have no good treatment," says study author Kristin Anderson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.

Every year, more than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 30,000 die from the disease annually, making it the fourth deadliest cancer in the United States.

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