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Health Highlights: Jan. 12, 2007

Lettuce May Have Caused E. Coli Outbreak at Taco John's Genetic Code Used to Personalize Warfarin Doses House Passes Medicare Drug Price Bill Multilingualism Delays Dementia U.S. Arthritis Costs Jump to $128 Billion FDA Wants Ban on Cattle Material in Medical Products

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

Lettuce May Have Caused E. Coli Outbreak at Taco John's

Contaminated lettuce from California may have caused the E. coli outbreak late last year that left about 80 people sick after they ate at two Taco John's restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

Of the 81 people who became ill, 26 were hospitalized. No one died in the outbreak.

Government investigators said the strain of bacteria in the Taco John's outbreak matched that found in samples taken from dairy farms in California's Central Valley. The FDA said the dairy farms are located near lettuce fields, the Associated Press reported.

Investigators are still trying to determine whether manure from the dairy farms could have contaminated the neighboring lettuce fields, said the FDA, which added that it's possible that other sources of contamination caused the Taco John's outbreak.

This is the second time in recent months that California cattle or dairy farms have been investigated as sources of E. coli contamination in produce. In September, an outbreak that killed three and sickened nearly 200 people in 26 states and Canada was traced to contaminated spinach grown in California.

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Genetic Code Used to Personalize Warfarin Doses

Starting this month, about 1,000 U.S. patients with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation will take part in a project to match their warfarin dose to their specific genetic code.

People with atrial fibrillation are at increased risk for deadly blood clots, and take warfarin to thin their blood and prevent clots. About two million Americans with atrial fibrillation take warfarin, the Associated Press reported.

Determining the appropriate warfarin dose is crucial. Taking too much can cause dangerous bleeding, and taking too little can lead to a stroke. Currently, trial and error is used to determine the correct dose of warfarin. Each year, warfarin-dosing errors result in tens of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.

The DNA testing in this new project should help identify patients whose bodies break down warfarin slower or faster than normal. Their dosages can then be adjusted to prevent dangerous complications, the AP reported.

The project is a collaboration between the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Medco Health Solutions of Franklin Lakes, N.J.

Using a person's genetic profile to determine the most appropriate medicine or dose is called targeted therapy or personalized medicine. In the United States, a number of studies looking at targeted therapy are under way or being planned, the AP reported.

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House Passes Medicare Drug Price Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Friday to require Medicare to negotiate bulk drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. The White House opposes the move and President Bush is prepared to veto it, Bloomberg news reported.

Supporters say the bill could lead to savings of $96 billion over 10 years. Opponents counter that government studies show the measure wouldn't produce any savings.

"It is clear that Medicare can do better, and we are insisting that they do so," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman.

He noted that prices for drugs purchased under the Medicare program are more than 80 percent higher than for other federal programs that negotiate with drug companies, Bloomberg reported.

Current law expressly forbids Medicare from directly negotiating prices with drug makers, Bloomberg said.

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Multilingualism Delays Dementia

Fluency in more than one language is associated with a significant delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia, according to a Canadian study in the February issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.

Researchers studied 184 people. Among those who spoke two or more languages, dementia began to appear at an average age of 76.1 in men and 75.1 in women, compared to 70.8 years in men and 71.9 years in women who spoke just one language, the Globe and Mail reported.

The mental agility required to be fluent in multiple languages may help delay the onset of dementia, suggested principal investigator Ellen Bialystok, an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.

"How you learn the language probably doesn't make much difference; how good your grammar is probably doesn't matter. What matters is that you have to manage two complete language systems at once," Bialystok told the Globe and Mail.

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U.S. Arthritis Costs Hit $128 Billion

The direct and indirect costs of arthritis and related rheumatic conditions in the United States totaled $128 billion in 2003, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

That amount was 48 percent more than the $86.2 billion cost in 1997 and the tab is expected to increase as the U.S. population grows older and heavier, the Associated Press reported.

In 2003, arthritis and related conditions incurred $80.8 billion in direct costs, such as medical expenses, and $47 billion in indirect costs, such as lost wages, the CDC said.

The agency estimated that 46.1 million people in the United States were treated for arthritis and related conditions in 2003, and that 8 million more people will be hit by arthritis between 2005 and 2015, the AP reported.

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FDA Wants Ban on Cattle Material in Medical Products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to ban certain cattle material from medical products in order to safeguard against mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

The proposal would cover drugs, vaccines and medical devices intended for use in people and ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep. The proposed rule would ban the use of cattle materials that pose the highest risk of containing infectious material.

This includes:

  • The brain, skull, eyes and spinal cords from cattle 30 months and older.
  • The tonsils and a portion of the small intestines from all cattle regardless of the animals' age or health.
  • Any material from "downer" cattle -- those that can't walk.
  • Any material from cattle not inspected and passed for human consumption.
  • Fetal calf serum if appropriate procedures have not been followed to prevent its contamination with materials prohibited by the proposed rule.
  • Tallow that contains more than 0.15 percent insoluble impurities if the tallow is derived from materials prohibited by this propose rule.
  • Mechanically separated beef.
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