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Health Highlights: Feb. 6, 2008

Tainted Pet Food Scandal Leads to Indictments FDA Moves to Stop Sales of Unapproved Gout Drug U.S. Adults Spent $127 Billion on Top Five Classes of Drugs Zinc, Vitamin A Supplements May Help Fight Malaria Whole Grains May Reduce Risk of Chronic Disease Cell Phone Use Doesn't Increase Brain Cancer Risk: Study Beet Juice Lowers Blood Pressure Overuse of Cotton Ear Swabs Led to Meningitis Death: Coroner

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

Tainted Pet Food Scandal Leads to Indictments

A U.S. company and its owners, along with two Chinese nationals and their businesses, have been indicted in connection with last year's pet food scandal in which imported wheat gluten contaminated with a toxic chemical contributed to the deaths of at least 14 cats and dogs and sickened hundreds more.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that a federal grand jury indicted the defendants for their roles in importing the pet food ingredient, which was contaminated with melamine, a chemical commonly used to make plastics.

Melamine has no approved use in either pet or human food, the FDA said. Wheat gluten typically is used as a way to thicken certain pet foods.

According to an FDA statement, indicted were: ChemNutra, Inc., a Las Vegas company that buys food ingredients from China to sell to U.S. companies; along with ChemNutra owners Sally Qing Miller and her husband, Stephen Miller. Sally Qing Miller, a Chinese national, is controlling owner and president of ChemNutra; Stephen Miller is an owner and CEO of the U.S. firm.

Also indicted were: Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., LTD. (XAC), a Chinese firm that processes and exports plant proteins to the United States; Mao Linzhun, a Chinese national who is the owner and manager of XAC; Suzhou Textiles, Silk, Light Industrial Products, Arts and Crafts I/E Co. LTD. (SSC), a Chinese export broker that exports products from China to the United States; and Chen Zhen Hao, president of SSC.

More than 800 tons of the questionable wheat gluten, worth nearly $850,000, were imported into the United States between Nov. 6, 2006, and Feb. 21, 2007, the indictments allege. The FDA also said that SSC falsely declared to the Chinese government that those shipments were not subject to mandatory inspection by the Chinese government prior to export.


FDA Moves to Stop Sales of Unapproved Gout Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will take enforcement action against any company that markets unapproved injectable colchicine, a drug sanctioned to treat gout.

The drug is highly toxic and can easily be given in excessive doses, especially when delivered intravenously, the agency said Wednesday. It has 50 reports of reactions to use of intravenous colchicine, including 23 deaths. Dangerous warning signs of misuse may include low blood cell count, cardiac problems, and organ failure.

The FDA warned companies that are producing and distributing unapproved colchicine products to stop making them within 30 days and to stop shipping them within 180 days. Failure to do so could lead to seizure, injunction, or "other legal action deemed appropriate by the agency," according to an FDA statement.

Injectable colchicine is sometimes formulated by so-called "compounding pharmacies" to treat back pain, which constitutes an unapproved use, the agency said. It cited three deaths last year that stemmed from compounded colchicine that, due to an error in preparation, was eight times more powerful than stated on the label.

Colchicine products in pill form, also approved to treat gout, aren't affected by the agency's edict, the FDA statement added.


U.S. Adults Spent $127 Billion on Top Five Classes of Drugs

In 2005, U.S. adults spent nearly $36 billion on prescription drugs to lower blood sugar, reduce cholesterol, or treat other metabolic problems, according to the latest News and Numbers summary from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The four other classes of drugs that topped spending among U.S. adults were:

  • Cardiovascular drugs, for reducing high blood pressure and treating heart conditions -- $33 billion
  • Central nervous system drugs, including pain killers, sleep aid medications, and attention deficit disorder medications -- $26 billion
  • Antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs -- $17 billion
  • Gastrointestinal drugs, including antacids and laxatives -- $15 billion.

In 2005, purchases of these five top classes of drugs totaled $127 billion, which was nearly two thirds of the total $199 billion spent on all outpatient prescription drugs, the News and Numbers summary said.

Data in this summary came from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which collects information about the health services used by Americans, the frequency with which those services are used, the cost of those services, and how those costs are paid.


Zinc, Vitamin A Supplements May Help Fight Malaria

Inexpensive dietary supplements -- zinc and vitamin A -- may help protect young children against malaria, says a French study in Nutrition Journal.

The study included children, ages 6 months to 6 years, in Burkina Faso. Zinc and vitamin A were added to the diets of some children, while others received a placebo. After six months, there was a 34 percent decline in the rate of malaria among the children who received the supplements, BBC News reported.

When they did contract malaria, children who received the supplements were more resistant to the disease and had fewer fever episodes than those in the placebo group, the study said.

The supplements likely boosted the immune system, making the children more naturally resistant to malaria, said the researchers from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé, BBC News reported. The supplements could offer an effective long term strategy to reduce the impact of malaria, the researchers suggested.

Malaria is a major cause of death in many parts of the world. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, it's estimated that malaria kills 1 million children a year. Malnutrition is a problem for many people living in areas in which malaria is endemic.


Whole Grains May Reduce Risk of Chronic Disease

A diet high in whole grains may help reduce the risk of developing chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, says a Penn State University study. Previous research found that eating whole grains was associated with lower body weight and lower blood pressure.

The new 12-week study included 50 obese adults, ages 20 to 65, who were divided into two groups -- one group ate a diet high in whole grains while the other group ate refined grains. Both groups were encouraged to do moderate exercise and received advice on weight loss and healthy eating, CBC News reported.

At the end of the 12 weeks, people in both groups had lost an average of eight to 11 pounds. Those who ate whole grains lost more abdominal fat.

The study also found that people in the whole grain group had a 38 percent decrease in C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker associated with increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, CBC News reported.

That kind of decrease puts whole grains on par with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, the researchers said. The findings were published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


Cell Phone Use Doesn't Increase Brain Cancer Risk: Study

A new Japanese study adds to previous findings that cell phones don't increase the risk of brain cancer. Researchers at Tokyo Women's Medical University compared 322 brain cancer patients and 683 healthy people and concluded that regular cell phone users weren't more likely to develop any of the three most common types of brain tumor -- glioma, meningioma or pituitary adenoma.

In this study, the researchers rated each participant according to how many years they'd used a cell phone and how long they spent talking on it each day. They also examined how radiation emitted by various types of cell phones might affect different parts of the brain, BBC News reported.

"Using our newly developed and more accurate techniques, we found no association between mobile phone use and cancer, providing more evidence to suggest they don't cause brain cancer," said lead researcher Professor Naohito Yamaguchi.

The study was published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Previous studies investigating a possible link between cell phones and brain cancer have produced contradictory findings, but most have suggested no association, BBC News reported.


Beet Juice Lowers Blood Pressure

Drinking 500 milliliters of beet juice a day may significantly lower blood pressure, says a British study that found that healthy people's blood pressure decreased within an hour of drinking the juice, BBC News reported.

The reduction in blood pressure was even more pronounced three to four hours after drinking the beet juice, and some degree of reduction continued for up to 24 hours. The findings were published online in the journal Hypertension.

The researchers said nitrate, which is also found in green, leafy vegetables, appears to be the key blood pressure-lowering ingredient in beet juice, BBC News reported.

"Our research suggests that drinking beetroot juice, or consuming other nitrate-rich vegetables, might be a simple way to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, and might also be an additional approach that one could take in the modern day battle against rising blood pressure," said study author Professor Amrita Ahluwalia.


Overuse of Cotton Ear Swabs Led to Meningitis Death: Coroner

Stronger health warnings are needed for cotton ear swabs, says a Quebec coroner who concluded that overuse of the swabs led to the death of a Montreal man last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

Dr. Jacques Ramsay said overuse of cotton swabs and repeated rubbing likely led to an ear infection and perforated eardrum in 43-year-old Daniel St-Pierre. The infection in his outer ear migrated through the perforated eardrum into the inner ear and caused a fatal case of meningitis, an infection of the fluid around the spinal cord and brain, Ramsay said.

"Once you're in the inner ear, you're millimetres away from the meninges and the brain," Ramsay told the Globe and Mail. "You just need one time to perforate your eardrum, and that opens the barrier and allows the infection to migrate."

While the likelihood of such cases is low, Ramsay wants Health Canada to put stronger product warnings on cotton swab products. He suggested the warning include a diagram of an ear with a red X through it.

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