Health Highlights: Dec. 13, 2006

Taco John E. coli Outbreak Widens U.S. Approves Chagas Screening Test Interns' Long Hours Threaten Patient Safety: Study Norovirus Outbreak Linked to Frozen Oysters From South Korea Exercise May Reduce Women Smokers' Lung Cancer Risk

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

Taco John E. coli Outbreak Widens

An E. coli outbreak first detected at a Taco John's restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has widened to include two Taco John's in southern Minnesota. Nearly three dozen people became sick after eating at the Cedar Falls outlet and 14 people fell ill after eating at the restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin, Minn. All the people ate at the restaurants in late November and early December.

The three outlets get their produce from the same supplier but it hasn't been determined whether produce was the source of the E. coli, a spokesman for Wyoming-based Taco John's told the Associated Press.

"We're still trying to pinpoint exactly what happened," spokesman Brian Dixon added, noting that the chain is testing all types of food from the three outlets.

E. coli, which is found in the feces of humans and livestock, can be present in undercooked meat. The germs can be spread by people who don't thoroughly wash their hands after using the washroom.

There's no indication of a link between the outbreak at the Taco John's outlets and an outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants in the U.S. Northeast that sickened 64 people, U.S. federal health officials said. The two companies are not affiliated.


U.S. Approves Chagas Screening Test

U.S. federal regulators have approved the first test to screen potential blood, organ and tissue donors for Chagas, a sometimes fatal tropical disease that's present in as many as 100,000 Hispanic immigrants.

The test, made by Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, will help prevent infected donors from passing along the disease, the Associated Press reported.

Chagas affects millions of people in parts of Mexico and Central and South America and kills about 50,000 a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In those regions, the disease is commonly spread by blood sucking "kissing bugs" that emerge at night to bite sleeping humans. It can also be spread from mothers to unborn children and through organ transplants and blood transfusions, the AP reported.

Since 1987, there have been five known cases in the United States of Chagas being spread through blood transfusion, along with two known cases in Canada.

Studies show that this new test is 99 percent accurate, the FDA said.


Interns' Long Hours Threaten Patient Safety: Study

Extra-long shifts worked by U.S. hospital interns can greatly increase the risk of medical errors that harm or kill patients, says a study published online Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine.

The study found that interns who worked five extra-long shifts (24 hours or more at a time without rest) a month were seven times more likely to report at least one fatigue-related preventable adverse event that contributed to the death of a patient during that month.

Interns who worked between one and four extra-long shifts a month were about three times more likely to report such an event, the report said.

The more extra-long shifts an intern worked in a month, the more likely they were to fall asleep during lectures, rounds and clinical activities, including surgery.

For the study, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston analyzed data from 17,003 monthly reports from 2,737 interns. The study was funded by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The findings are important because interns routinely work extended shifts in U.S. teaching hospitals, the study authors said. They noted that guidelines for graduate medical education in the United States allow up to nine "marathon" shifts (30 hours at a time) a month.

"It is clear that sleep deprivation takes its tool over time on physicians," study author Laura K. Barger, a research associate at Brigham and Women's and Harvard, said in a prepared statement.

"While tradition holds that forcing young doctors to work extended-duration shifts teaches them to become better doctors, the evidence shows that this method of education is dangerous to patients," she said.


Norovirus Outbreak Linked to Frozen Oysters From South Korea

An outbreak of norovirus linked to raw, frozen oysters on the half shell from South Korea is being investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and officials in five states.

Eight people became sick after eating raw oysters at a private event in Woodburn, Ore. On Dec. 8, the FDA tested oysters from the same production lot as those served at the event and found the oysters were positive for norovirus.

The affected oysters were from the Central Fisheries Company in South Korea, and imported by Fortuna Sea Products Inc. of California. The frozen oysters were distributed to proprietors in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Texas.

Fortuna Sea Products issued a recall of the 1,100 cases of frozen oysters that were in the affected lot.

Consumers who have frozen oysters on the half shell that they bought between mid-October and early December should contact their retailer to determine if the oysters are from the affected South Korean lot and need to be returned, the FDA said.

Norovirus can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Most people show symptoms within 48 hours of exposure to the virus and the illness typically lasts one or two days.


Exercise May Reduce Women Smokers' Lung Cancer Risk

Exercise may help reduce the risk of lung cancer in women smokers, suggests a U.S. study in this month's issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention.

Researchers analyzed data on 36,410 older women and found that physically active smokers were 35 percent less likely to develop lung cancer than sedentary smokers, the Associated Press reported.

But the finding doesn't mean that women should believe that exercising gives them an excuse to smoke, warned study lead author Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

"The most important thing that smokers can do to reduce the risk of lung cancer is quite smoking," Schmitz told the AP. She noted that the risk of lung cancer among people who quit smoking is 10 to 11 times lower than among smokers.

It's not clear why exercise may help prevent lung cancer in smokers. Some experts suggest that it could be because improved pulmonary function in smokers who exercise reduces the amount of cancer-causing particles in the lungs, the AP reported.

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