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Health Highlights: July 30, 2006

Thailand Faces Second Bird Flu Outbreak North Carolina Beaches Issue Jellyfish Alert New Cases of Rabbit Fever Seen in Martha's Vineyard Group Suing Over Plan B Seeks White House Documents College Students Learning How to Drink Safely, Study Finds

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

Thailand Faces Second Bird Flu Outbreak

The Thai government has ordered the slaughter of 300,000 chickens as officials of that country face the second outbreak of bird flu in the past year.

"The H5N1 virus was found in chickens in a local farm," Assistant Agricultural Minister Charal Trinvuththipong told Agence France-Presse on Sunday. The farm where the outbreak occurred is located in the Nakhon Phanom province, which is to the northeast of Bangkok. "It is the second outbreak [this year] following the one in the Phichit province, Charal added.

On Wednesday, a boy died from bird flu; it was the first human death from the disease in seven months. Charal told the wire service that 100 volunteers have been sent to kill the chickens near the affected area, although the move will not be announced officially until Monday.

So far, bird flu has infected 231 people around the world, and killed 134.

Human casualties remain largely confined to Asia and to people who have had close and prolonged contact with infected birds, such as poultry farm workers. Worries about bird flu have also led to the destruction of tens of millions of poultry, mostly in Asian nations, as officials struggle to contain the virus.

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North Carolina Beaches Issue Jellyfish Alert

At least 75 people have been stung in the past week by jellyfish near Wrightsville and Carolina beaches, and the Hanover County Health Department has issued an alert in response, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

"I can't recall any particular year that it's been that bad," Charles Smith, director of Carolina Beach Ocean Rescue, told the wire service. One swimmer had to be taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center with a suspected Portuguese man-of-war sting.

After arriving early at Wrightsville Beach, in mid-July, these sea nettles are bombarding Carolina Beach, where so many were in the water on Thursday that lifeguards posted red flags to alert visitors of dangerous conditions. At Wrightsville, lifeguards treated a dozen stings a day when the jellyfish were at their peak although they're now down to one sting a day, Ocean Rescue Director Dave Baker told the AP.

Experts say tropical weather, higher temperatures, salinity and rich feeding grounds are probably behind the trend.

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New Cases of Rabbit Fever Seen in Martha's Vineyard

Massachusetts health officials said Saturday that six new cases of a potentially fatal disease known as "rabbit fever" have been reported on Martha's Vineyard.

The disease, also known as tularemia, has plagued the island since an outbreak in 2000 made 15 people sick and killed one person, the state Department of Health told the Associated Press. The disease is caused by a bacterium commonly found in rodents and rabbits. Humans can get the disease through the bite of an infected dog tick, when an open sore or cut comes into contact with the bacteria, or by inhaling spores. It is not spread from person to person. Symptoms include skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, or a flu-like feeling.

All six cases were reported between May 13 and July 5, the AP reported. Four patients were landscapers, and all six people had the respiratory form of the illness, were treated and are recovering. Left untreated, 7 percent of those with this form of the illness die, state health officials told the wire service.

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Group Suing Over Plan B Seeks White House Documents

As part of its lawsuit to force the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive Plan B, the Center for Reproductive Rights seeks to subpoena White House e-mails and other documents, the Associated Press reported.

The group, which wants to determine whether the White House tried to influence FDA regulators on whether to loosen sales restrictions on Plan B, made the request in a July 21 letter to U.S. District Court Judge Viktor Pohorelsky. The letter was released Friday, the AP said. A hearing on the request will be held Thursday.

The FDA had intended to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B to women aged 17 and older, but delayed its decision to determine how to limit sales to that age group, former FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford stated in a sworn deposition given in the suit.

Currently, the emergency contraceptive can only be sold with a doctor's prescription, although a few states allow pharmacists to dispense the pills.

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College Students Learning How to Drink Safely, Study Finds

Although 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, less than 13 percent say they have been hurt or damaged property after they imbibe, a new survey of 28,000 students finds.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that the study involving 44 colleges and universities found 73 percent of those students who do drink protect themselves by using designated drivers, limiting what they spend at bars, counting drinks, and expecting friends to speak up if someone has had too much.

Michael Haines, of the National Social Norms Resource Center, noted some protective measures, such as avoiding drinking games and pacing drinks, deserve more attention than others.

"The safest place for college students to drink alcohol is on college campuses. All data points to that," he said. "Yet more is done to force the drinking off campus... Those policies have failed to reduce drinking."

The National Social Norms Resource Center advocates alcohol safety, recognizing student drinking happens and recommending ways to do it safely.

Critics suggest better alternatives include tougher penalties for student drinking and limiting student access to alcohol.

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