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Health Highlights: June 3, 2008

Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Tomatoes Group Wants Food Colorings Banned Massachusetts' Insurance Program Making Progress Tobacco Sales to U.S. Minors Reach All-Time Low Chronic Hay Fever Leads to Nasal Obstruction Grape Juice May Protect Against Memory Decline

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

Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Tomatoes

An outbreak of salmonella poisoning linked to uncooked tomatoes has sickened 40 people in Texas and New Mexico, and tomatoes are being investigated as the cause of 30 illnesses in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Idaho, Illinois and Indiana, the Associated Press reported.

In Texas and New Mexico, at least 17 people have been hospitalized, but there have been no deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the victims in those two states said they ate raw tomatoes from stores or restaurants before they became ill between April 23 and May 27.

Lab tests confirmed that the 40 illnesses in Texas and New Mexico were caused by the same type of salmonella. Another 17 cases in New Mexico are under investigation. No farm, distributor or grocery chain has been pinpointed as the main source of the contamination, the AP reported.

Salmonella bacteria are usually transmitted to humans when they eat food contaminated with animal feces. Symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Most people recover without treatment, but salmonella infection can cause serious health problems or death in infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.


Group Wants Food Colorings Banned

Eight artificial food colorings may cause hyperactivity and behavior problems in some children and should be banned, the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a petition presented Tuesday to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The group said studies conducted over three decades have shown that some artificial food dyes can affect children's behavior and noted the British government is pressuring food makers to switch to safer coloring, the Associated Press reported.

"The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food, to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both. Who can tell parents of kids with behavioral problems that this is truly worth the risk?" said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The group wants the following colorings banned: Yellow 5; Red 40; Blue 1; Green 3; Orange B; Red 3; and Yellow 6.

The FDA insists food colorings used in the United States have been thoroughly studied and are safe and do not cause childhood hyperactivity, the AP reported.


Massachusetts' Insurance Program Making Progress

Massachusetts' program to introduce near-universal health coverage is achieving key goals, says a study released Tuesday. It found the rate of uninsured adults has declined from 13 percent to 7 percent and that residents are paying less in out-of-pocket health expenses.

In addition, low-income adults are more likely to have regular checkups and dental visits, the Associated Press reported.

As of July 2007, everyone in the state had to have health insurance or face penalties, except for people who received a waiver showing they couldn't afford insurance.

Last year, about 5 percent of taxpayers didn't obtain health coverage, and more than half of those (97,000) had to forfeit their personal exemption of $219 after it was determined they could have afforded insurance, the AP reported.

Another 62,000 taxpayers (2 percent) were found to be unable to afford health insurance and weren't fined.

The fact that 95 percent of taxpayers were insured shows the law is making progress, said Gov. Deval Patrick.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. They interviewed 3,000 state residents in the fall of 2006 before the law took effect and interviewed them again a year later. The study was published in the journal Health Affairs.


Tobacco Sales to U.S. Minors Reach All-Time Low

In the past 11 years, there's been a dramatic decline in illegal sales of tobacco products to underage youth in the United States, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced Tuesday.

The national average of illegal tobacco sales to minors in fiscal year 2007 reached an all-time low of 10.5 percent, compared to 40.1 percent in 1997. Officials credit the decline to the Synar Amendment program, a federal-state partnership program aimed at ending illegal tobacco sales to minors which was introduced in 1997.

SAMHSA said nearly all states and the District of Columbia have achieved the major Synar program goal of having 20 percent or less of their tobacco product retailers selling tobacco products to minors. In 1997, only four states met that goal.

In 2007, more than half of the states had illegal retail sales of tobacco to minors of 10 percent or less. Mississippi had the lowest level of illegal sales of tobacco products to minors (3.2 percent), while Massachusetts had the highest (22.7 percent).

"Although underage use of tobacco remains a serious public health problem, the Synar program's continued success confirms that decreasing illegal tobacco sales to minors is an important component of state tobacco control efforts," Terry Cline, Ph.D., SAMHSA administrator, said in a prepared statement.


Chronic Hay Fever Leads to Nasal Obstruction

People who suffer seasonal allergies over many years may experience a reduction in nasal passage airflow, say Italian researchers who studied 50 people with short-term allergic rhinitis (two years or less) and 50 others with long-term (six years or more) allergic rhinitis.

Seventy-two percent of those with long-term rhinitis had severe nasal obstruction, which meant their nasal airflow was reduced so much that it interfered with daily activities or sleep, CBC News reported. This reduced airflow, which took an average of nine years to develop, is believed to be due to a chronic state of inflammation, the researchers said.

"There was a slight inverse correlation between rhinitis duration and nasal airflow, and disease duration was significantly lower in patients with moderate obstruction with respect to patients with severe obstruction," the researchers wrote. "Nasal airflow was, furthermore, significantly lower in patients with severe obstruction with respect to patients with moderate obstruction."

The study was published in the June issue of the journal Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery.


Grape Juice May Protect Against Memory Decline

Drinking Concord grape juice may help protect against age-related memory problems, suggests a University of Cincinnati pilot study.

It included 12 adults with early memory decline who drank 15 to 21 ounces of grape juice or a placebo daily for 12 weeks, United Press International reported.

Both beverages were equal in calorie and sugar content, but only the grape juice had natural polyphenolic compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, noted study author Robert Krikorian.

The people who drank the grape juice showed significant improvements in their ability to learn lists and showed signs of improved short-term retention and spatial memory, UPI reported.

The findings were presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American Aging Association, held May 30 to June 2 in Boulder, Colo.

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