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Health Highlights: Dec. 18, 2002

Piercings, Tattoos May Suggest Other Risky Behavior Birds May Spread Ebola Virus Drunken-Driving Death Rates Differ Among States Nasal-Spray Flu Vaccine Wins Preliminary Approval 2 Hospitals Won't Give Staffers Smallpox Shots Pap Test Guidelines Revised

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

Piercings, Tattoos May Suggest Other Risky Behavior

Teenagers with body piercings, and especially those sporting tattoos, are more likely to experiment with alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana than teens without piercings or tattoos, a Health Canada survey suggests.

"Body piercing and tattooing are visual clues that a teen wants to be associated with the experimental, risk-taking community," the survey said.

The results showed that 40 percent of teens with tattoos were daily smokers and they were four times more likely to be daily marijuana smokers, according to a report in The Ottawa Citizen. They were also 24 percent more likely to agree that they sometimes "try things that are dangerous or forbidden just for the fun of it."

Teens with piercings were less likely to engage in risky behavior than their tattooed peers, but slightly more likely than teenagers with neither piercings nor tattoos.

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Birds May Spread Ebola Virus

Birds may be able to spread the deadly Ebola virus, U.S. researchers warn.

Ebola, the virus that has killed hundreds in central Africa, resembles viruses that attack birds, say scientists at Purdue University, the BBC reports. By studying the biochemical structure of Ebola, the researchers discovered that the deadly bug's outer protein is similar to certain bird retroviruses. This suggests the virus may have jumped from birds to humans.

The researchers said their theory has not been proven, but health officials should keep it in mind.

Ebola, discovered in 1976, is known to infect humans and monkeys. It causes tissue destruction and bleeding, and is fatal 50 to 90 percent of the time.

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Drunken-Driving Death Rates Differ Among States

During the last 20 years, the rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the United States has dropped more than 50 percent, but the numbers differ significantly from state to state.

For instance, drivers in South Carolina, the state with the highest fatality rate, are four times more likely to die in a drunken-driving accident than drivers in Utah, the state with the lowest death rate, the Associated Press reports.

State-by-state statistics, compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are meant to encourage states with poor track records to get tough on motorists who drink.

Law enforcement agencies across the country say they plan to crack down on impaired drivers with increased sobriety checkpoints and more patrols from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5.

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Nasal-Spray Flu Vaccine Wins Preliminary Approval

U.S. health officials have given tentative initial support to the first nasal-spray flu vaccine, whose maker hopes to have it on the market by next year's flu season.

However, the product, called FluMist, should only be authorized for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49, an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration said. That would exclude many people vulnerable to the flu, including young children and the elderly, as well as asthmatics and others with chronic diseases, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Unlike FluMist, traditional flu vaccines contain inactivated viruses generally considered safer for people with weakened immune systems. It's not clear if the FDA would OK the sale of a vaccine with so many restrictions.

The FDA isn't bound by the recommendations of its advisory panels.

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2 Hospitals Won't Give Workers Smallpox Shots

Two well-known U.S. teaching hospitals say they won't give their staffers the smallpox vaccine, contending the potential side effects outweigh the threat of an attack with the deadly virus, the Washington Post reported.

President Bush has called for inoculation of so-called "front-line" medical workers, who would shoulder the burden of treating those stricken in the event of a biological attack.

But Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond said the risk of side effects from the vaccine, which include encephalitis and possibly death, as well as the potential for spreading the virus to patients, didn't justify inoculating staffers, the newspaper reported.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the newspaper, "This is a voluntary program. We understand not all hospitals will choose to participate."

Bush's proposal also gives all Americans the choice of getting the smallpox vaccine.

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Pap Test Guidelines Revised

The American Cancer Society has revised its guidelines on Pap tests, recommending for the first time that women at low risk for cervical cancer don't need them.

The revisions are designed to spare women from unnecessary, invasive medical procedures, according to an Associated Press report.

The new guidelines say testing isn't needed for young women who are not sexually active; women 70 or older who have had normal Pap tests in the past; and women who have had hysterectomies for non-cancer-related reasons. They also recommend that sexually active women begin getting Pap tests within three years of the start of sexual activity, but no later than age 21.

The problem with Pap tests, according to the experts who wrote the new guidelines, is that they detect non-cancerous lesions, causing doctors to perform additional tests that needlessly worry patients, cost money and sometimes have harmful effects, such as reduced fertility.

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