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Health Highlights: Feb. 11, 2009

Doctor Who Fueled Vaccine-Autism Link Altered Data: Report Peanut Plant Owner Had Tainted Products Shipped: Report Smokers Likelier to Change Habits After Health Scare: Study Overweight/Obesity Rates Increase Among U.S. Military

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

Doctor Who Fueled Vaccine-Autism Link Altered Data: Report

The British doctor whose 1998 paper fueled international fears of a link between childhood vaccines and autism manipulated and changed data to make his case, the Sunday Times of London reported.

An investigation by the newspaper found that Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues altered confidential and public records to support their claim that eight of 12 autistic children attending a routine clinic at Wakefield's hospital had developed symptoms of autism only days after they were given the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Wakefield's original findings, published in The Lancet, have since been refuted by many subsequent epidemiological studies.

According to the Los Angeles Times Brian Deer, an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times who had been following the MMR controversy since the beginning, said a review of hospital and other records showed that almost all of the children had developed symptoms of autism well before receiving the shot. While Wakefield claimed that measles virus found in the intestines of the children caused an inflammatory bowel disease linked to autism after they were given the shot, Deer found that hospital pathologists examining the children for signs of inflammatory bowel disease were unable to confirm its presence in most of the cases, and concluded that Wakefield or someone on his team altered the data to make it appear the condition was found, the Los Angeles Times said.

Deer also reported that at least one parent of a child in whose intestines the measles virus was said to have been found took samples to three other labs, which were unable to confirm Wakefield's findings. Deer also found that Wakefield had been retained as an expert witness two years before his study by a lawyer planning to sue vaccine makers on behalf of parents who thought the MMR shot caused their children's problems. Deer said the parents cited in The Lancet article came to Wakefield's clinic after responding to an advertisement by the lawyer's group, called Jabs, and not for routine screening, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Meanwhile, Wakefield and two co-authors, Dr. John Walker-Smith and Dr. Simon Murch, face allegations of professional misconduct brought by England's General Medical Council, which oversees physicians. Those charges, according to the Sunday Times of London, are not related to the newspaper's investigation, but rather to the researchers' ethics in using the children. The newspaper said it was forwarding all its data to the medical council for review.

Through a lawyer, Wakefield has denied the newspaper's allegations and continues to stand by his original conclusions. In 2004, however, 10 of the 13 original authors on The Lancet paper asked that it be withdrawn, saying that "no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism because the data was insufficient," the Sunday Times of London said.

Since Wakefield's original claims, the newspaper reported that vaccination rates in Great Britain have fallen from 92 percent to less than 80 percent. As a result, two children have died of measles, and 1,348 cases of the disease were reported in England and Wales in 2008, where only 56 were reported in 1998, when Wakefield's study was first released.


Peanut Plant Owner Had Tainted Products Shipped: Report

The owner of Peanut Corp. of America, the company suspected of causing the nationwide salmonella outbreak, told his employees to ship products tainted with the bacteria even after receiving test results identifying the presence of salmonella, according to company e-mails disclosed Wednesday by U.S. lawmakers, the Associated Press reported.

The e-mails, obtained by a House of Representatives' panel investigating the outbreak, revealed that company owner Stewart Parnell ordered the tainted products to be shipped anyway because he was worried about lost sales, the news service reported.

Parnell was subpoenaed to appear before Congress on Wednesday for questioning on the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 600 people, been linked to eight deaths, and prompted one of the largest recalls in U.S. history -- more than 1,800 products. His plant in Blakely, Ga., is blamed for the outbreak, the AP reported.

Parnell showed up for the Congressional hearinng, but refused to answer questions, invoking his constitutional right not to incriminate himself, the AP said.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., revealed the company e-mails during a House Energy and Commerce hearing.

In prepared testimony, a laboratory owner told the lawmakers that Peanut Corp.'s disregard for tests identifying salmonella was "virtually unheard of" in the nation's food industry and should prompt efforts to increase federal oversight of product safety.

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp.'s products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found in some of its peanut stock. Peanut Corp. sold the products anyway, according to an U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection report, the AP said.

The company, which is now under investigation by the FBI, makes only about 1 percent of U.S. peanut products, but its ingredients are used by dozens of other food companies.

Federal law bans producing or shipping foods that could be harmful to consumers, the news service said.

On Tuesday, a peanut processing plant in Texas owned by Peanut Corp. was closed after state health officials reported that products there might be tainted with salmonella, according to CNN.


Smokers Likelier to Change Habits After Health Scare: Study

Health scares convince many smokers to kick the habit but do little to push overweight and obese people to lose weight, according to U.S. researchers.

Their analysis of data from 20,221 overweight or obese people under age 75 and about 7,764 smokers showed that smokers are three times more likely to quit if they suffer a heart attack or stroke or are diagnosed with lung disease or cancer, The New York Times reported.

But overweight and obese people diagnosed with a serious condition such as heart disease or diabetes lose only two to three pounds, said the study published Monday in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

The researchers said they're not sure why health scares push smokers to change their ways but have little effect on overweight and obese patients. They did note that many health plans don't cover weight-loss programs (other than bariatric surgery), while free or low-cost smoking cessation programs are offered by many local health departments and businesses, the Times reported.

"People really are open to changing their behaviors after a health event, and this could really be a window of opportunity," study author Patricia S. Keenan, assistant professor of health policy at the Yale University School of Medicine, told the newspaper. "I'm not sure the health care system is capitalizing on it, in terms of giving people the support they need to make these changes as they go forward."


Overweight/Obesity Rates Increase in U.S. Military

Stress and return from deployment may be among the reasons why the number of overweight and obese U.S. military personnel has doubled since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, says a Pentagon study.

The number of overweight and obese personnel increased from 34,333 (2.1 percent) in 2003 to 68,786 (4.4 percent) in 2008. The number was 25,652 (1.6 percent) in 1998, Agence France Presse reported.

The Pentagon said a 2005 poll of U.S. military personnel revealed that "stress and return from deployment were the most frequently cited reasons for recent weight gain."

The increase of weight problems among servicemen and women reflects that of the general U.S. population, where 20 percent of those ages 18 to 34 are obese, AFP reported. As in the civilian population, fast food and a sedentary lifestyle play a role in weight gain among members of the military.

"Overweight/obesity is a significant military medical concern because it is associated with decreased military operational effectiveness ... and both acute and chronic adverse health effects," the Pentagon study said.

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