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Health Highlights: Feb. 7, 2007

Japan Has Record High HIV/AIDS Cases in 2006 U.S. Union, Business Leaders Pledge Affordable Health Care for Workers Gardasil May Offer Broader Protection Against Cervical Cancer: Merck Overuse of Topical Anesthetics Can be Deadly: FDA High-Action Video Games Improve Vision Study Suggests General Anesthetic/Alzheimer's Link

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

Japan Has Record High HIV/AIDS cases in 2006

In 2006, Japan registered record high levels of new HIV infections and AIDS patients, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the country's Health Ministry. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Last year, there were 914 new HIV infections -- an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2005 -- and 390 people developed AIDS, an increase of 6.3 percent from 2005, the Associated Press reported.

The 2006 figures are the highest since the Health Ministry began keeping HIV/AIDS statistics in 1985.

Reasons for the increases were not provided in the report, the AP said. While the number of infections in Japan may be increasing, the increase in the number of reported infections is also due to the fact that more people are getting tested, said Health Ministry official Kozo Akino.

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U.S. Union, Business Leaders Pledge Affordable Health Care for Workers

Union leaders and executives from four major U.S. employers -- AT&T Inc., Intel Corp., Kelly Services Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- pledged Wednesday to provide "quality, affordable" health care for millions of employees by 2012.

At a press conference, the business and union leaders, who've formed a coalition called "Better Health Care Together," promised to hold a national summit by the end of May in order to convince other leaders from business, labor, government and non-profit groups to join them, the Associated Press reported.

The leaders said they have four main goals, including universal health coverage for "every person in America" and improving the value that the United States receives for the money it spends on health care.

At the moment, the effort has the support of the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America. But there is only lukewarm backing from WakeUpWalMart.com, which is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers, the AP reported.

"If Wal-Mart is truly serious, we challenge the company to provide universal health care to all of its uninsured employees and their families today," Paul Blank, campaign director for WakeUpWalMart.com, said in a prepared statement.

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Gardasil May Offer Broader Protection Against Cervical Cancer: Merck

There are promising indications that the Gardasil vaccine may offer protection against cervical cancer beyond what is currently claimed, according to drug maker Merck & Co.

Gardasil was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June to prevent infection by four strains of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). Two of the HPV strains targeted by Gardasil cause about 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer, while the other two targeted strains primarily cause genital warts.

Merck says that the vaccine may also offer "cross-protection" against other cancer-causing strains of HPV that aren't specifically targeted by Gardasil, Dow Jones/AP reported.

The drug maker said it's currently studying whether the vaccine is able to prevent precancerous lesions caused by these other HPV strains. Early results from the study have been encouraging, according to a Merck executive.

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Overuse of Topical Anesthetics Can be Deadly: FDA

Application of large amounts of skin-numbing lotions, creams and gels that are widely used in cosmetic and medical procedures can cause dangerous side effects such as irregular heart rhythm and seizures, warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency said Tuesday that two deaths have been linked to application of large amounts of these topical anesthetics, CBC News reported. Two women, ages 22 and 25, died after using the products on their legs after laser hair removal.

The FDA said the women "wrapped their legs in plastic wrap, as they were instructed, to increase the creams' numbing effect. Both women had seizures, fell into comas, and subsequently died from the toxic effects of the anesthetic drugs."

The agency also said that it's received reports of side effects such as irregular heartbeats and slowing or stopping of breathing in people who've used the topical anesthetics, CBC News reported.

Prescription and over-the-counter topical anesthetics include lidocaine, tetracaine, benzocaine and prilocaine.

The FDA recommends that patients: use a topical anesthetic approved by the FDA; use a topical anesthetic that contains the lowest amount of anesthetic drugs possible that will relieve pain; ask for instructions from your doctor on how to safely use the topical anesthetic; talk with their doctors about using lower doses of approved topical anesthetics or about alternatives.

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High-Action Video Games Improve Vision

Playing high-action video games for about an hour a day can help improve vision, according to a University of Rochester study in the journal Psychological Science.

People who did this for a month showed a 20 percent improvement in a visual acuity test that required them to identify letters presented in a cluster, United Press International reported. The test was similar to one used by ophthalmologists.

"Action video game play changes the way our brains process visual information," said Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences. "After just 30 hours, players showed a substantial increase in the spatial resolution of their vision, meaning they could see figures like those on an eye chart more clearly, even when the other symbols crowded in."

In this study, one group of participants played a first-person shooting game called Unreal Tournament, while another group played Tetris, which requires about the same level of motor control skills, but is visually less complex, UPI reported.

The Tetris players did not show any improvement in vision, the study found.

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Study Suggests General Anesthetic/Alzheimer's Link

The commonly used general anesthetic isoflurane may cause brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease, suggests a Massachusetts General Hospital study in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In laboratory tests on brain cells, the researchers found that isoflurane increases the activity of an enzyme that causes the cells to die and promotes the development of amyloid protein, BBC News reported.

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the formation of amyloid-beta protein plaques, which kill brain cells.

"If future studies support these findings, they suggest that caution be used in choosing this anesthetic for elderly patients, who already are at increased risk for Alzheimer's and for postoperative cognitive dysfunction," said research leader Dr. Zhongcong Xie of the Massachusetts General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease.

The team plans to conduct further research to study if these same effects occur in patients.

Some previous studies have suggested an association between general anesthesia and an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, BBC News reported. It's also known that a small percentage of patients suffer a form of dementia after surgery.

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