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Health Highlights: June 22, 2006

Chinese SARS-Bird Flu Report Puzzles WHO 'Superbug' Traced to Illegal Tattoo Artists Group Finds 1 in 20 Babies at Risk for Eye Problems Health Insurance Coverage for Children Improved in 2005

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

Chinese SARS-Bird Flu Report Puzzles WHO

Chinese scientists Wednesday said that a man initially thought to have SARS actually died of bird flu in 2003 -- two years before the country reported any human bird-flu infections to the World Health Organization. But the scientists now want to withdraw their report to a leading medical journal.

WHO was surprised by the report, which came from eight scientists and not the Chinese government. The findings were printed Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine. At the last minute, however, at least one of the Chinese scientists e-mailed the journal Wednesday morning, requesting that the report be withdrawn. Journal editors were waiting to see whether the authors would now retract the paper, according to the Associated Press.

The confusion surrounding the man's death in Beijing raises the possibility that other cases in China already attributed to SARS may have actually been the deadly H5N1 flu. "It's hard to believe that this is the only person in all of China who developed H5N1" that year, Dr. John Treanor, a flu expert at the University of Rochester, told the news service.

A WHO spokesman in China said the agency would formally request that the Chinese Ministry of Health clarify the report and explain why it took more than two years to uncover the finding. Attempts to reach the Chinese scientists for comment were unsuccessful, the AP reported.

China didn't report its first human cases of bird flu outside Hong Kong until 2005. Eight infections and five deaths were recorded that year, and this year the government has reported at least 10 infections and seven deaths. The SARS outbreak in China began in November 2002, but was not recognized until the following spring. More than 1,450 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome were confirmed, the vast majority in Asia. Many cases were diagnosed based on symptoms, which are similar to those of bird flu, and not lab tests.

During the SARS outbreak, some public-health experts questioned whether the Chinese government was being candid about the extent of the crisis.

The New England Journal of Medicine report raised the possibility that the two dangerous viruses emerged simultaneously. The newly disclosed case in Beijing means "there may be more jumps from birds to people than we realized," a journal editor told AP.

Meanwhile, WHO experts said that human-to-human transmission likely occurred among seven of eight relatives who developed bird flu and died last month in Indonesia, according to a report obtained Wednesday by AP.

The experts said the cluster's index case was probably infected by sick birds and spread the disease to six family members. One of those cases, a boy, then likely infected his father.

The report was distributed during a closed meeting at a three-day conference in Jakarta, convened after Indonesia asked for international help. Indonesia has confirmed 51 cases of bird flu this year, and 39 have been fatal, according to AP.

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'Superbug' Traced to Illegal Tattoo Artists

Dozens of customers in three states were infected with a strain of "superbug" bacterium after getting tattoos from unlicensed artists, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

In an article in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 42 tattoo customers in Ohio, Kentucky and Vermont developed skin infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that fights off the body's immune system and destroys tissues. The community-associated variety, seen in the tattoo infections, has been diagnosed in otherwise healthy athletes, military recruits and prison inmates, the Associated Press reported.

MRSA usually causes mild skin infections, but in some cases has led to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and a painful, flesh-destroying condition called necrotizing fasciitis. The infections occurred in 2004 and 2005, according to the CDC, and were traced to 13 unlicensed tattoo artists. These are the first documented cases of tattoo-related MRSA infections, a CDC infectious disease investigator wrote in the report.

So far, three of the Ohio tattooists have recently been jailed, according to the CDC. The tattooists sometimes did not use masks or surgical gloves and did not disinfect the customer's skin or clean their equipment properly. According to the AP, one Ohio tattoo artist used a homemade tattoo gun made from a computer ink-jet cartridge and guitar strings.

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Group Finds 1 in 20 Babies at Risk for Eye Problems

A new public health program aimed at early diagnosis of eye problems in children found that 1 in 20 infants show a need for some type of later vision correction.

Nearly 50,000 infants have been tested so far, and the American Optometric Association (AOA) analyzed 5,000 of those cases. Results from the first year of InfantSEE, a no-cost program developed to provide professional eye care for infants nationwide, were expected to be presented by the AOA, in partnership with The Vision Care Institute of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Inc., at AOA's annual meeting June 21-25, in Las Vegas.

Public health experts agree that visual development is most dramatic between 6 and 12 months of age. Early detection can prevent and help reduce the threat of serious vision impairment, the AOA said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

Under the InfantSEE program -- which has former President Jimmy Carter as its honorary national chairman and spokesman -- participating optometrists provide a no-cost, one-time comprehensive eye assessment to infants in their first year of life, regardless of family income. Parents can reach InfantSEE toll-free at (888) 396-EYES.

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Health Insurance Coverage for Children Improved in 2005

American children experienced the greatest increase in health insurance coverage since 1997, but coverage for all Americans continues to vary by state, according to two new reports released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reports, which present the latest data on U.S. health habits, found that in 2005, an estimated 41.2 million persons of all ages (14.2 percent) were without health insurance, down from 15.4 percent in 1997. During the same time period, only 8.9 percent of children were without insurance, compared to 13.9 percent in 1997.

Among other key findings in the CDC report were a rise in both diagnosed diabetes and asthma, up to 7.4 percent and 7.8 percent of the population, respectively.

Texas lead the nation in persons not covered for health care with 24 percent lacking insurance. Massachusetts topped the list of 20 states for which statistics were available for the study, with just 6 percent of its residents lacking coverage.

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