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Health Highlights: July 2 2010

New Technology May Enable Blind People to Drive West Nile Cases Lower in 2009 VA Facility Should Be Investigated: Senators

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

New Technology May Enable Blind People to Drive

A prototype vehicle equipped with technology that enables a blind person to drive a car is scheduled to be demonstrated next year by U.S. researchers.

The system utilizes sensors that provide information to a blind driver about what's around the vehicle, such as whether another car or object is in front of the vehicle or in an adjacent lane, the Associated Press reported.

The planned demonstration of the technology -- announced Friday by the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech -- will involve a blind person driving a vehicle on a course that simulates a typical driving experience.

"We're exploring areas that have previously been regarded as unexplorable," said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, the AP reported. "We're moving away from the theory that blindness ends the capacity of human beings to make contributions to society."

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West Nile Cases Lower in 2009

The West Nile virus season in 2009 was the mildest in eight years, and that trend appears to be continuing this year, say U.S. health officials.

Last year saw 386 cases of severe West Nile illness and 33 deaths, compared to 3,000 illnesses and more than 260 deaths in 2002 and 2003. So far this year just one serious West Nile illness has been reported in the United States, the Associated Press reported.

The decline in the number of cases may be because birds are developing immunity to the virus, which is spread to humans by mosquitoes that bite infected birds.

Severe symptoms of infection with West Nile virus, first documented in the United States in 1999, include neck stiffness, disorientation, coma and paralysis, the AP reported.

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VA Facility Should Be Investigated: Senators

A formal investigation of the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis is needed, say some members of Congress who are outraged by news that 1,812 veterans may have been exposed to potentially deadly viral infections while receiving dental treatment at the facility between Feb. 1, 2009, and March 11 of this year.

Those at fault should be "disciplined or dismissed," Republican Sen. Todd Akin said in a news release, the Associated Press reported. "I cannot believe that the Veterans Administration has failed our St. Louis veterans in such a dramatic and disturbing manner."

In letters sent to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Akin and another Missouri senator -- Democrat Russ Carnahan -- demanded a formal investigation into the veterans' possible exposure to infections such as hepatitis C and HIV through improperly sterilized dental instruments.

All the patients have been urged to return to the VA facility for blood tests. So far, about 100 veterans have had follow-up blood tests, and hundreds of others have made arrangements to be tested, said VA Medical Center spokeswoman Marcena Gunter, the AP reported.

"While VA believes there is minimal risk -- any risk at all is unacceptable," the VA said in a news release. "Any error in judgment or procedure will not be tolerated as the safety of our veterans is essential to our mission," it added.

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