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Health Highlights: Feb. 17, 2002

Smallpox Vaccine Shortage Solution: Dilution Sleeping Sickness Fought With Army of Sterile Tsetse Flies Genetically Altered Mouthwash Washes Away Tooth Decay One in Five College Students Who Body Pierce Will Have Medical Problems Obesity and Malnutrition Can Co-Exist in Poor Countries Bioengineered Low-Nicotine Cigs On the Way

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

Smallpox Vaccine Shortage Solution: Dilution

It almost seems too easy to be true, but government officials say a national shortage of smallpox vaccine brought on by a bioterror attack could be alleviated by simply diluting the existing 15 million doses that are available.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told a conference that experiments to find out if the vaccine could indeed be diluted have been "very successful."

In fact, he told a meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science, researchers have looked at watering down vaccines to as little as one-tenth their original concentration, the Associated Press reports.

While it wasn't determined whether the vaccines would still be effective at that concentration, Fauci said it's clear that the vaccines could indeed be diluted significantly.

In addition to the 15 million doses that are stockpiled, the U.S. has ordered another 200 million doses from a British company. Should vaccinations be needed, the new doses would be used before officials resorted to using the diluted doses.

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Sleeping Sickness Fought With Army of Sterile Tsetse Flies

Health officials are launching an intense new war against deadly sleeping sickness. The foot soldiers? An army of sterile tsetse flies.

Sleeping sickness affects a half a million people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, killing nearly 80 percent of those who catch the illness, the BBC reports.

While the disease is spread by the tsetse fly, the International Atomic Energy Agency, working with the Organization of African Unity, hopes that by infesting regions affected by the disease with flies that can't reproduce, populations of the insect may die off.

Similar methods have successfully eradicated the tsetse fly from Zanzibar.

In addition to the widespread fatalities, sleeping sickness reportedly causes economic losses of more than $4 billion each year, as well as the deaths of about three million cattle.

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Genetically Altered Mouthwash Washes Away Tooth Decay - - For Life

A genetically modified mouthwash holds promise of eliminating tooth decay with a simple spritz in the mouth, reports the BBC.

University of Florida researcher Jeffrey Hillman, says he genetically altered a well-known bacterium called Streptococcus mutans that causes tooth decay by breaking down sugar into lactic acid and destroying tooth enamel.

The altered version of the bacterium can't make lactic acid and when used in the form of a mouthwash in tests on rats, it replaced bad bacterium in the mouth that causes tooth decay.

In addition, when the rats were given high sugar diets, the sugar appeared to help the bacterium to strengthen the surface of the tooth.

Best of all, the mouthwash, used as just a one-time, five-minute treatment costing less than about $150, is said to potentially last a lifetime.

Clinical trials on the mouthwash are due to begin within a year. The findings were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

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One in Five College Students Who Body Pierce Will Have Medical Problems

Whether you consider it art or mutilation, body piercing has become extremely popular, especially among the young.

However, bold self-expression isn't without risk: A recent survey of college students in New York found that almost one in five who get pierced will suffer from a medical problem, reports HealthSocut News.

The numbers suggest that 4 million people nationwide may encounter bleeding, tearing or infections, says study author Dr. Lester B. Mayers of Pace University's Division of Sports Medicine.

"Even if a small percentage require antibiotics, drainage procedures and physician visits, you're talking a significant medical cost," he notes.

The survey of 454 students, apparently the first of its kind, also found 60 percent of female students had one or more piercings in places other than their earlobes. Forty-two percent of males had piercings in their earlobes and elsewhere.

The findings appear in the January issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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Obesity and Malnutrition Can Co-Exist in Poor Countries

While some nations continue to starve, obesity is ironically becoming as widespread, if not even more of a global problem, experts declared yesterday.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, researchers said that in some parts of the world the two dietary problems are even co-existing, with starving populations experiencing malnutrition while growing middle classes in the same regions have obesity problems, the Associated Press reports.

In one South African example, researchers noted that 12 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys in Cape Town were considered overweight, while in a poorer rural region 300 kilometers away, just 1 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls were considered overweight.

"The recognition that this is a worldwide problem is very recent," the AP quoted Marquise Lavelle of the University of Rhode Island, as saying.

The researchers said high-calorie foods and less physically demanding jobs were often to blame for the obesity rates.

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Bioengineered Low-Nicotine Cigs On the Way

The ongoing quest for a "healthy cigarette" has finally arrived where many undoubtedly expected it would -- in the hands of genetic alteration.

A new, as yet unnamed brand of cigarettes due out this spring will be among the first to use bioengineered tobacco that has been altered to be very low in nicotine, according to the Associated Press.

The cigarettes will be made by Vector Group, the parent company of cigarette maker Liggett Group.

The decision to use the tobacco was made after a study by the Agricultural Department showed that the biotech tobacco had low levels of nicotine, the addictive chemical in cigarettes.

The study showed that the Vector tobacco of about 400 to 1,000 parts of nicotine per million. Conventional tobacco has 20,000 to 30,000 parts per million.

The study also determined that the tobacco would not pose a risk to the environment, but tobacco farmers said they feared the altered tobacco could possibly become mixed in with conventional leaf and jeopardize the nation's tobacco export industry.

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