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Health Highlights: Jan. 17, 2007

U.S. Government Awards Bird Flu Vaccine Contracts No More Milk Products with Bovine Growth Hormone: Starbucks Baby Teether Beads Pose Choking Hazard HIV Infected 1,000 Children a Day in 2006: U.N. Report Vitamin A Inhibitors May Help Prevent Esophageal Cancer Atlanta Worst U.S. City for People with Asthma

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

U.S. Government Awards Bird Flu Vaccine Contracts

The U.S. government announced Wednesday it has awarded contracts totaling $132.5 million to three companies for the advanced development of H5N1 bird flu vaccines, using an immune system booster called an adjuvant.

An adjuvant is a substance added to a vaccine that increases the body's response to the active ingredient (antigen) in the vaccine.

"In the event of an influenza pandemic, a vaccine that uses adjuvant could provide a way to extend a limited vaccine supply to more people," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

Five-year contracts were awarded to drug maker GlaxoSmithKline ($63.3 million) and to Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, Inc. ($54.8 million). In addition, a 15-month, $14.4 million contract was awarded to IOMAI Corporation to complete phase I clinical trials of their candidate vaccine. If the trials are successful, IOMAI may receive an additional $114 million in funding.

Under the contracts, each company will build up its capacity to produce either 150 million doses of an adjuvant-based influenza vaccine or enough adjuvant for 150 million doses of a vaccine. The companies must be able to do this within six months of the onset of an influenza pandemic.

So far, the H5N1 bird flu virus has spread to more than 40 countries, resulting in the death and slaughter of millions of chickens and other domestic birds. More than 260 people in 10 countries have been infected by H5N1 and more than half of them died.

In most of the human cases, H5N1 infection occurred after direct contact with sick animals. However, experts fear that the virus may mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between people.

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No More Milk Products with Bovine Growth Hormone: Starbucks

Less than a month after it announced it would stop selling items with trans fats in its U.S. stores, Starbucks Coffee Co. said this week that it is phasing out milk products that contain an artificial bovine growth hormone.

The company said that as of January, 37 percent of dairy products at its U.S. outlets are free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), compared to 27 percent of milk products in December. The company did not say when it expects to reach 100 percent, the Associated Press reported.

For years, some advocacy groups have said there's inadequate research on the effects in humans of dairy products from cows that are given rBGH, which is used to increase milk production.

Those groups applauded Starbucks' decision.

"We think it's good news, and we are happy to hear it," Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch in Washington, D.C., told the AP.

However, large-scale dairy producers said there's no scientific evidence to suggest that rBGH has any effect on humans.

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Baby Teether Beads Pose Choking Hazard

About 375,000 Bright Starts Star Teether Beads and Bright Starts Teether Beads are being recalled because they pose a choking hazard, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Wednesday.

The flexible plastic ring that holds the teether beads in place can crack or break, causing the beads to detach. The distributor, Kids II Inc. of Alpharetta, Ga., has received 24 reports of the plastic ring cracking or breaking and the beads detaching from the ring. There have been no reports of injuries.

The two products (model numbers 8483 and 8549) were sold at discount department and juvenile specialty stores across the U.S. from June 2006 through January 2007 for between $1 and $3.

Parents should immediately take these teether beads away from their children and contact Kids II for information about receiving a free replacement. Call the company toll-free at (877) 325-7056 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

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HIV Infected 1,000 Children a Day in 2006: U.N. Report

Each day in 2006, more than 1,000 children around the world were infected by HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), according to a UNICEF report released Tuesday.

In total, 410,000 to 660,000 children under the age of 15 were infected with HIV last year, the U.N. agency said. Most of the children were infected during or immediately after their birth to HIV-positive mothers, the Associated Press reported.

UNICEF said that about half of the children infected last year will die of AIDS-related diseases within two years if they do not receive appropriate medical treatment.

The report did say there has been progress in preventing the transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their babies. For example, some countries in sub-Saharan Africa -- including Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa and Swaziland -- increased access to treatment for vulnerable mothers between 2004 and 2005, the AP reported.

However, only seven countries worldwide (Argentina, Brazil, Botswana, Jamaica, Russia, Thailand, and Ukraine) are on track to reach the goal of providing access to treatment for 80 percent of HIV-infected pregnant women, said UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick.

In 2006, just nine percent of HIV-infected pregnant women in low- to middle-income countries received antiretroviral drugs that can reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the AP reported.

Each year, AIDS kills more than 2.9 million people worldwide, including about 380,000 children.

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Vitamin A Inhibitors May Help Prevent Esophageal Cancer

Blocking the action of vitamin A may prevent cellular changes that can lead to esophageal cancer, says a U.K. study in the current issue of the journal Gut.

Scientists at the Medical Research Council Cell Unit found that exposure to vitamin A can cause changes in cells that line the esophagus, resulting in a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus. Lesions caused by Barrett's can cause esophageal cancer.

Until now, the cause of the cell changes that lead to Barrett's have been unknown. This study found that treating cells that make up the lining of the esophagus with vitamin A triggered changes that lead to Barrett's, BBC News reported.

When the altered cells were treated with vitamin A inhibitors, the cells reverted to a normal state.

"We are very excited about these findings," said lead researcher Dr. Rebecca Fitzgerald. "Vitamin A inhibitors could allow us to reverse Barrett's esophagus which would prevent the lesions it provokes from causing esophageal adenocarcinoma."

About 1 in 100 cases of Barrett's esophagus develop into cancer, Dr. Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK, told BBC News.

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Atlanta Worst U.S. City for People with Asthma

Atlanta has the dubious honor of being the U.S. asthma capital for 2007, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which just released its annual rankings of the 100 most challenging places to live for people with the respiratory illness.

Atlanta took the top spot due to its higher-than-average crude death rate (CDR) for asthma, high year-round pollen levels, bad air pollution, and lack of total smoking bans in restaurants, bars or workplaces.

Other factors were the city's high rate of poverty and the large percentage of residents without health insurance. Both of these issues are barriers to good asthma care, the foundation said.

Here are the 10 U.S. cities considered to be the worst places for people with asthma: Atlanta; Philadelphia; Raleigh, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Greensboro, N.C.; Scranton, Pa.; Little Rock, Ark.

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