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Health Highlights: Feb. 3, 2007

Bird Flu Outbreaks Reported on Poultry Farms in England, Japan Drug Addiction Medicine May Offer New Crohn's Disease Treatment Texas 1st State to Mandate That Girls Get Cervical Cancer Vaccine Bush Wants Major Medicare and Medicaid Spending Cuts Protein Alterations Prevent Flu Virus From Spreading Fewer U.S. Women Dying of Heart Disease

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

Bird Flu Outbreaks Reported on Poultry Farms in England, Japan

Avian flu eruptions among the world's poultry population continue unabated.

Two outbreaks of bird flu during the past two days in countries half a world apart indicate the resiliency of this strain, which scientists continue to monitor in hopes that it doesn't mutate into a type that could be transmitted between humans

More than 2,600 turkeys died on a farm in the Suffolk County region of England, according to United Press International, and health officials confirm that the flu virus was the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza. Because of the outbreak, U.P.I. reports, another 159,000 will be slaughtered to try and bring it under control.

No human cases of avian flu were reported in England, the wire service said. Worldwide, 270 incidents of humans contracting the disease have been reported, and 164 were fatal, according to the World Health Organization. However, scientists say there has been no evidence that any of the human cases were caused by person-to-person contact.

Meanwhile, a fourth outbreak of bird flu in the past week has occurred in Japan, according to the Associated Press. About two dozen chickens were affected in the same poultry farm area south of Tokyo that has already prompted the destruction of hundreds of thousands of birds.

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Drug Addiction Medicine May Offer New Crohn's Disease Treatment

Another possible use has been found for naltrexone, a medication already used to relieve symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction and also being tested as an appetite suppressant.

A news release from the Penn State College of Medicine says that a low dose of naltrexone may help relieve symptoms of Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the intestine. Researchers found in a pilot study that 89 percent of the participants showed an improvement -- easing of inflammation -- with naltrexone and therapy, and 67 actually had their Crohn's go into remission.

The findings, published in a early on edition of the American Journal of Gastroenterology, caused researchers to become hopeful about alternative treatments for Crohn's, which affects about 500,000 Americans. The disease has been typically treated with immune-suppressing steroids or corticosteroids, and this can cause dangerous side effects.

"This is a novel approach to treating a common disease, and it's simple, it's safe, and it costs far less than current standards of treatment," the news release quotes lead research Dr. Jill P. Smith as saying. "We don't yet know the exact mechanisms involved in how it works, but we're working on that, as well."

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Texas 1st State to Mandate That Girls Get Cervical Cancer Vaccine

Texas Governor Rick Perry on Friday signed an executive order making his state the first to require that schoolgirls receive the Gardasil vaccine against cervical cancer.

"If there are diseases in our society that are going to cost us large amounts of money, it just makes good economic sense, not to mention the health and well-being of these individuals, to have those vaccines available," he told the Associated Press.

The vaccine -- which was approved for use by the federal government in June -- has proven highly protective against the most common strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of most cases of cervical cancers.

Beginning in September of 2008, all Texan girls entering the sixth grade (at about 11-12 years old) will receive the three shots of Gardasil needed to confer immunity, the AP reported.

Issuing an executive order allowed Perry, a Republican, to circumvent potential opposition in the state legislature from conservative groups who have voiced concern that routine HPV vaccination of young girls promotes premarital sex and interferes with parents' rights.

Perry has said, however, that he sees little difference between the cervical cancer vaccine and immunization against diseases such as polio.

The Texas move has gotten the backing of Gardasil's maker, Merck, which the AP says has doubled its lobbying budget in the state. According to the news agency, Merck could realize billions in sales if vaccination with Gardasil, which costs $360 for the three-shot regimen, is made mandatory for girls across the US.

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Bush Wants Major Medicare and Medicaid Spending Cuts

In his budget next week, it's expected that U.S. President George W. Bush will ask for more than $70 billion in spending cuts from Medicare and Medicaid over the next five years.

The proposals, part of the White House plan to balance the budget by 2012, are expected to spark a fight with the Democrat-controlled Congress, The New York Times reported.

"There is a large area for potential compromise and agreement, but with these latest Medicare proposals, the president is just asking for controversy. He still acts as if Republicans were in complete control and Democrats had lost the election," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D., N.Y.), who heads the House Ways and Means Committee.

It's also expected that Bush will propose changes to the Children's Health Insurance Program that could reduce federal payments to states that provide coverage for children with family incomes that are more than twice the poverty level, the Times reported.

In contrast, Democrats want major expansions of the children's health program.

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Protein Alterations Prevent Flu Virus From Spreading

Making changes to a protein on the surface of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic prevents the virus from spreading among animals, says a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published Friday in the journal Science.

The scientists said this kind of research may help them better prepare for the next pandemic, CBC News reported.

For the study, the CDC team recreated batches of the 1918 virus and then made two changes to a protein on its surface. The modified virus was then put in the noses of lab ferrets. The infected animals developed flu and died but did not transmit it to uninfected neighboring ferrets.

The alterations made by the CDC scientists to the 1918 flu virus made it similar to the H5N1 bird flu virus, CBC News reported. Currently, H5N1 is not easily transmitted among humans, but experts fear that H5N1 could mutate and cause a pandemic.

"Though we still don't know what changes might be necessary for H5N1 to transmit easily among people, it's likely that changes in more than one virus protein would be required for the H5N1 virus to be transmitted among humans," study lead author Dr. Terrence Tumpey said.

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Fewer U.S. Women Dying of Heart Disease

The number of American women who died from heart disease decreased from one in three in 2003 to one in four in 2004, a drop of nearly 17,000 deaths, the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) said Thursday.

The institute also noted that heart disease deaths in women steadily declined from 2000 to 2004, a type of steady annual decline that had not occurred before. The findings were released to mark National Wear Red Day, part of The Heart Truth program to raise women's awareness about heart disease and encourage them to take action to reduce their risk factors.

"To see such a significant reduction in deaths underscores that the efforts of many individuals and organizations to raise awareness, improve treatment and access, and inspire women to take action are truly saving lives," Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, NHLBI director, said in a prepared statement.

She said significant progress has been made in increasing women's awareness that heart disease is their leading killer. In 2005, 55 percent of women were aware of that fact, compared to 34 percent in 2000, according to survey findings.

"More women are aware that heart disease is their leading killer, and research shows that this heightened awareness is leading them to take action to reduce their risk. They are more likely to step up their physical activity, eat healthier, and lose weight," Nabel said.

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