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Health Highlights: Dec. 8, 2002

Doubts Arise About U.S. Smallpox Vaccination Plan Disney Cruise Ship Sets Sail After Scrubdown Biotech Company Fined $3 Million Kellogg's Recalls Pop-Tarts for Allergy Hazard Stethoscope Ineffective on Obese Americans Pentagon Bans Ephedra Products

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

Doubts Arise About U.S. Smallpox Vaccination Plan

Tomorrow is the day that states are to submit to the federal government their plans to vaccinate health-care workers against smallpox, in the event of a bioterrorist attack.

But it's unclear how many of the estimated 500,000 doctors, nurses and other emergency workers would agree to the vaccination, which is risky -- even potentially fatal -- especially for pregnant women, those with chronic skin problems, and people with weakened immune systems, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Under the federal vaccination program, inoculations are scheduled to begin in January. The idea is to vaccinate enough health-care workers to handle an outbreak of the deadly virus if it were used as a bioterrorist weapon.

If too many workers balk at the vaccine, the plan to create a "national first-response force" could collapse, the newspaper reports.

"There's a lot of concern about getting the vaccine," said Robert McNamara, Temple University Hospital's chairman of emergency medicine and past president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. "This [disease] is still a very intangible threat. Unless they [federal officials] can make a strong case, it's going to be difficult to sell."

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Disney Cruise Ship Sets Sail After Scrubdown

The Disney cruise ship Magic set sail on a Caribbean voyage Saturday after undergoing a weeklong cleansing and disinfection. A stomach virus had sickened hundreds of passengers on two previous trips.

Disney Cruise Line officials had canceled the ship's Nov. 30 cruise after about 275 people had fallen ill with a Norwalk-like virus on the previous trip, the Associated Press reports.

Cruise ships operated by Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Lines have also been plagued by similar gastrointestinal viruses in recent weeks. The common bug can cause symptoms like diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting for up to two days, the AP says.

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Biotech Company Fined $3 Million

ProdiGene Inc., a Texas-based biotechnology company, must pay the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than $3 million for mixing genetically engineered corn containing an animal vaccine with soybeans intended for human consumption, the Associated Press reports.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced the company must also reimburse the federal government for 500,000 bushels of contaminated soybeans, valued at $2.7 million, and the cost to destroy them.

ProdiGene's CEO, Anthony G. Laos, apologized for the error. "We're very sorry for the mishap and have corrected it,'' he said.

The payment marks the first time the USDA has fined a biotechnology company for violating the Plant Protection Act. The 2-year-old law governs the transportation and planting of genetically engineered plants, the AP says.

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Kellogg's Recalls Pop-Tarts for Allergy Hazard

Kellogg USA is recalling 730,000 packages of 8-count, 14-ounce Kellogg's Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts because they contain undeclared egg, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

People who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to egg run the risk of a life-threatening reaction if they eat the product.

Affected packages have a UPC code of 38000 31110 and a carton code of K-3111D printed on the top. "Better If Used Before" dates affected are:

SEP 23 03 CT NOV 23 03 CP
OCT 27 03 CP NOV 24 03 CP
OCT 28 03 CP NOV 25 03 CP
NOV 06 03 CT NOV 26 03 CP
NOV 07 03 CT NOV 27 03 CP
NOV 08 03 CT

The product was distributed throughout the United States and the Caribbean. No illnesses have been reported.

For more information, contact Kellogg at 1-877-877-4494.

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Stethoscope Ineffective on Obese Americans

The medical profession's most recognizable symbol -- the stethoscope -- may become obsolete, as many doctors complain that the added layers of flab in overly fat Americans make it difficult to listen to patients' hearts.

A study of 500 doctors, published by the American Medical Association, reported that only 20 percent of physicians could correctly identify 12 basic heart sounds and heart murmurs using the 200-year-old tool, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Doctors blame a prevalence of obesity and noisy hospitals for the stethoscope's declining effectiveness. Instead, some physicians are using a hand-size portable ultrasound device that allows them a closer look at patients' major organs. The high-tech scan costs $12,000.

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Pentagon Bans Ephedra Products

The Pentagon is forbidding its military installations worldwide from selling products containing ephedra, a chemical cousin to amphetamines that's often found in so-called "fat-burning" diet supplements, CBS News reports.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues its years-long debate about whether to ban the substance -- and whether it has the power to do so -- the Pentagon says it's time to act. Ephedra has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and seizures in recent medical studies. And more than 30 active duty military personnel, some in their early 20s, have died while taking the products, CBS News says.

An ephedra industry spokesman maintains that no one has proven what caused the military deaths, and that the substance is safe if taken as directed.

Meanwhile, a leading producer of ephedra products, Twinlabs, tells CBS News that it will soon stop selling the supplements. The company calls the move "a sound business decision in the current climate," the network reports.

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