Health Highlights: Dec. 16, 2005

More U.S. Drivers Using Cell Phones at the Wheel H5N1 Bird Flu Virus Mutating: UN Official U.K. Surgeons Get OK to Select First Patient for Full Face Transplant More Accurate TB Test Recommended by CDC FDA Panel Endorses New Shingles Vaccine

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

More U.S. Drivers Using Cell Phones at the Wheel

Despite safety warnings and laws prohibiting the practice, a growing number of Americans are talking on their cell phones while they drive, says a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

The report concluded that about 1.5 million drivers are chatting on their cell phones at any given time, with young people and women the most likely users.

Based on data collected by a NHTSA survey of drivers at 1,200 road sites across the country between June 6 and June 25, the report found about 10 percent of U.S. drivers on the road in the daytime are using cell phones, compared to about 8 percent in 2004. Six percent of drivers are holding the phones to their ears, up from 5 percent in 2004, the Associated Press reported.

Some studies have suggested that any use of cell phones while driving increases the risk of a crash, and some states forbid drivers from gabbing on hand-held cell phones. The NHTSA says motorists should use cell phones while driving only in emergency situations, the AP reported.


H5N1 Bird Flu Virus Mutating: UN Official

Subtle mutations are taking place in the bird flu virus that are bringing it closer to gaining the ability to be transmitted from person-to-person and causing a global pandemic, says David Nabarro, the UN's coordinator on avian influenza.

"There are some subtle changes in the genetic makeup of H5N1 which suggest it is making some of the mutations that would enable it to have a higher likelihood of being able to become a human-to-human transmitted virus," Nabarro said in Phnom Penh during a visit to Cambodia, Agence France Presse reported.

It's feared that millions of people around the world could die if the H5N1 virus does manage to mutate.

"It is quite feasible that H5N1 could mutate. The fact that is has taken some years should not lead you to believe that we are through the worst," Nabarro said.

In related news, China confirmed a new human case of bird flu Thursday and the virus is suspected of causing the deaths of man and boy in Indonesia. There have been at least 141 human cases of bird flu since 2004 and the virus has killed at least 71 people in Asia, Bloomberg News reported.

The number of human bird flu infections have more than doubled this year. Health officials have warned that more needs to be done to control bird flu outbreaks in poultry, which increase the likelihood that the virus will mutate to a form contagious among humans.


U.K. Surgeons Get OK to Select First Patient for Full Face Transplant

British surgeons at the Royal Free Hospital in London have received approval from the hospital's ethics committee to identify a patient who meets selection criteria for what could be the world's first full face transplant.

The team is led by consultant plastic surgeon Dr. Peter Butler, who has been investigating the full face transplant process for about 10 years, BBC News reported.

Butler said the selected patient will likely have severe facial burns or trauma and would have already had skin grafts. He also said that there are many psychological issues, along with physical issues, that will determine the choice of patient.

Even though he has the go-ahead to select a patient, Butler will have to gain further approval from the hospital's ethics committee to actually perform the operation.

A few weeks ago, French doctors performed the world's first partial face transplant on a 38-year-old women.


More Accurate TB Test Recommended by CDC

A new, more accurate blood test for tuberculosis is being recommend by officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The QuantiFERON-TB Gold test is more convenient for patients and less likely to produce a false positive reading than the current TB skin test. The new QFT Gold test may someday replace the old skin test, which as been used for the past 100 years, the Associated Press reported.

The skin test requires patients to receive an injection of a small amount of protein-bearing testing fluid called tuberculin. The injection is given just beneath the skin on the underside of the forearm. The patient has to return two to three days later so that a health worker can assess the swelling at the injection site and determine whether the test is positive or negative for TB.

The QFT Gold test requires a single visit where blood is taken from the patient. Results can be given to the patient as soon as the next day, the AP reported.

"This is one of the first TB advancements made since the discovery of antibiotics. ... This is a huge deal," Jennifer Grinsdale, an epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, told the AP.

That department started using the QFT Gold test in February and now uses it for the the majority of its TB testing.


FDA Panel Endorses New Shingles Vaccine

A new vaccine to protect against shingles was endorsed Thursday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's advisory panel on vaccines.

The Zostavax vaccine, developed by Merck & Co., appeared safe and effective in people 60 years and older but the panel expressed concern that the vaccine's effectiveness may not last. They also noted that the vaccine seems to be less effective in people over age 80, the Associated Press reported.

Merck has applied to have the vaccine approved for use in people aged 50 and older. However, the clinical trials on the vaccine were conducted mostly on people 60 and older. The panel members said this left them uncertain about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness in people in their 50s, the AP reported.

The panel's endorsement of the vaccine goes to the FDA, which makes the final decision on whether to grant approval.

Shingles, which affects about a million adults a year, is a disease that develops as people age and develop a weakened immunity to the chickenpox virus. Shingles can cause itching, pain, rash, blisters and even long-term nerve pain.

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