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Health Highlights: Jan. 8, 2007

Downtown Austin, Texas, Closed After Discovery of Dead Birds Mysterious Odor Hits New York City Sex-Hormone Imbalance Evident in Some Bulimia Cases: Study Refrigerated Version of Inhaled Flu Vaccine Approved Californians Denied Insurance for Job Risk, Medication Use Alzheimer's Gene Only Affects Older People

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

Downtown Austin, Texas, Closed After Discovery of Dead Birds

About 10 blocks in downtown Austin, Texas, were closed off early Monday after as many as 60 dead birds were found along a main road, but preliminary tests did not detect any dangerous chemicals in the air, the Associated Press reported.

The dead pigeons, grackles and sparrows were scattered along Congress Avenue. No human injuries or illnesses were reported. Officials said there was no threat to public health.

After the dead birds were discovered, police closed off a 10-block stretch of Congress Avenue, along with several side streets and all buildings in the area. Emergency workers in hazardous-material suits tested the area for environmental contaminants or gas or chlorine links, the AP reported.

It will likely take several days before test results on the dead birds are available, officials said.


Mysterious Odor Hits New York City

A mysterious odor caused a scare in New York City and parts of New Jersey on Monday morning.

The strong odor, described by many people as similar to natural gas, resulted in the evacuation of some buildings and affected some subway and train lines. However, the mysterious smell, which quickly dissipated, did not appear to be harmful, The New York Times reported.

The odor was reported from midtown Manhattan to Battery Park City and also in Jersey City, N.J. Reports about the smell began coming in shortly before 9 a.m.

Speaking at a news conference Monday morning, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said city officials hadn't been able to pinpoint the source of the odor. Air-quality sensors around Manhattan did not detect high concentrations of natural gas, the Times reported.


Sex-Hormone Imbalance Evident in Some Bulimia Cases: Study

Some women with the binge eating disorder bulimia may have a sex hormone imbalance, says a study by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, BBC News reported.

Bulimia is normally regarded as a mental condition that's treated with psychological therapies such as counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy. The findings of this study suggest that some women with bulimia may have too much of the male hormone testosterone.

In this study, half of the 21 bulimia patients treated for testosterone imbalance reported less hunger and reduced cravings for fatty, sugary foods, BBC News reported. Three of the patients no longer suffered from bulimia, which is characterized by compulsive overeating.

The women in the study were treated with a contraceptive pill containing the female sex hormone estrogen. This treatment reduced testosterone levels in the women's bodies.

Bulimia is about 10 times more common in women than in men.

"Hormone treatment may very well be an alternative to cognitive behavioral treatment," Steve Bloomfield of the Eating Disorders Association told BBC News. However, it's likely that only a few women with bulimia would benefit from hormone treatment, Bloomfield added.


Refrigerated Version of Inhaled Flu Vaccine Approved

A new formulation of the inhaled flu vaccine FluMist has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The new version allows the vaccine to be refrigerated instead of frozen. This will allow more places like schools and pharmacies to store the vaccine, manufacturer MedImmune Inc. told the wire service.

FluMist, first approved in 2003, is sanctioned for people ages five to 49, although its maker is seeking expanded approval for toddlers as young as a year old who do not have respiratory conditions such as asthma, the AP reported.

The company said the new formula should be available by August, well before next winter's flu season.


Californians Denied Health Coverage for Job Risk, Medication Use

Even though they're in good health and can afford health insurance, some California residents are being denied health coverage because they have high-risk jobs or are taking certain medications, according to a report published Monday in the Los Angeles Times.

The restrictions are included in confidential underwriting guidelines that health plans provide to insurance brokers. The Los Angeles Times obtained the guidelines -- not available to the public -- for four health plans in California: PacifiCare Health Systems Inc., Health Net Inc., Blue Shield of California, and Blue Cross of California.

According to the guidelines, all four health plans use prescription drug use as a basis for deciding who qualifies for individual health policies.

The Times also found that three of the four health plans (except Blue Cross of California) exclude applicants based on occupation. Pro athletes, firefighters, migrant workers and roofers are among those considered to be high-risk applicants.

Excluding certain high-risk people helps keep insurance affordable for the majority of people, health plan representatives told the newspaper. However, consumer advocates told the Times that the guidelines are too restrictive.

"This isn't cherry picking; this is ignoring whole orchards of people," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights.

There are 6.6 million uninsured Californians. On Monday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was expected to announce a plan to expand coverage to many of those people, the Associated Press reported.


Alzheimer's Gene's Effects Only Hit in Old Age

A gene (APOE4) associated with Alzheimer's disease only impacts people in old age and does not cause mental decline earlier in life, says an Australian study in the journal Neuropsychology.

The 20-year study of 6,560 people found that people with APOE4 maintained the same language abilities, memory skills, and reaction times as other people through most of their adult lives, the Australian Associated Press reported.

The finding suggests that very early Alzheimer's disease is not the cause of mental decline in people with the APOE4 before they reach old age, said lead author Anthony Jorm of the University of Melbourne.

APOE4 is believed to be a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, the AAP reported.

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