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Health Highlights: June 7, 2006

Guidant Considered Warning Docs on Heart-Device Defects: Report FDA Stands Behind Fish Advisory Angolan Cholera Death Toll Tops 1,500 Cancer of the Larynx Linked to Asbestos Exposure Harvard Scientists Begin Experiments to Clone Human Embryos

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

Guidant Considered Warning Docs on Heart-Device Defects: Report

Guidant Corporation, which last year defended its decision not to tell physicians about significant heart-device defects, had drafted a "Dear Doctor" letter to disclose the hazards but decided not to send it, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The proposed letter and other company records, released this week by a Texas state judge, may have significant legal and financial consequences. Since last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice and Food and Drug Administration have been conducting an inquiry into Guidant's handling of safety issues affecting several now-recalled defibrillators. The revelation could also have implications for Boston Scientific, which completed its acquisition of Guidant in April, the newspaper said.

A spokeswoman for the United States attorney's office in Minneapolis that's heading the federal inquiry declined to comment on the investigation, according to the paper's report. And a spokesman for Boston Scientific said the company would not comment on the Guidant documents, but added that his company recognized the need for more transparent communication with patients and doctors.

Since last fall, the federal inquiry has delved into Guidant's handling of safety issues affecting several defibrillators that have since been recalled. Two legal experts have said that the type of federal health care statutes under which the company is being investigated could result in civil or criminal charges, the Times reported.

At least seven patients are known to have died in episodes in which Guidant defibrillators failed to work because of an electrical defect. But many experts believe that the number is probably higher because implanted heart devices are rarely examined after a patient's death to see if they were working properly, the newspaper said.

A defibrillator is an implanted device that senses potentially fatal heart rhythms and corrects them with a timed electrical shock to restore a normal heartbeat.

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FDA Stands Behind Fish Advisory

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reassuring consumers that its 2004 advisory about what Americans need to know about eating fish remains current, despite fears of mercury contamination in the catch.

In a prepared statement, the agency repeated its advisory recommendations that "fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet and can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. Because of their many healthy benefits we recommend that women and young children include them as a regular part of their diet. However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury."

The agency also repeated that five of the most commonly eaten fish -- shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish -- have low levels of mercury.

Consumer Reports on Tuesday had warned that pregnant women should not eat canned tuna, because a small percentage contains levels of methyl mercury as high as fish that the FDA said pregnant women should never eat -- shark, swordfish, King Mackerel, or tilefish., according to a report in USA Today.

The FDA said that although some canned tuna may contain higher mercury levels, others are lower, and that scientists took averages into account in the recommendations.

Health experts agree that eating fish is good for most people. But there are concerns that mercury and other pollutants can offset the benefits.

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Angolan Cholera Death Toll Tops 1,500

A cholera outbreak in Angola has claimed 1,576 lives since February, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, with 250-300 infections still being reported daily.

The African country, whose health and public infrastructure was torn apart in a 20-year civil war that ended in 2002, reported a total of 41,475 cases in 13 of its 18 provinces as of May 31, according to the Associated Press.

The overall fatality rate stood at 3.8 percent -- above the 1 percent the WHO considers average, the report said. It's estimated that a quarter of the 4 million Angolans in the capital of Luanda live in shantytowns.

Cholera, which can be treated easily but is a major killer in developing countries, is transmitted through contaminated water. It is linked to poor hygiene, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation.

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Cancer of the Larynx Linked to Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos, already generally accepted as a cause of a number of respiratory ailments including lung cancer, may also be a source for laryngeal cancer, the U.S. government's Institute of Medicine says.

The Associated Press reports that a series of studies have found that certain cancers of the throat and lungs are similar, so the U.S. Senate asked the institute to investigate a potential link between asbestos and other upper-body cancers.

In addition to lung cancer, asbestos, historically used to insulate buildings, is also linked to mesothelioma, a rare cancer that attacks the lining of the chest.

But the institute said there was not enough evidence of a connection between asbestos and other malignancies, including cancers of the upper throat and esophagus.

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Harvard Scientists Begin Experiments to Clone Human Embryos

U.S. scientists said Tuesday they have begun work on cloning human embryos to create stem cells, a goal that some find ethically objectionable, according to the Associated Press.

Dr. George Daley, a leading expert in blood diseases and an executive committee member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, is overseeing the work at Children's Hospital Boston, the main pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. Daley said he had begun experiments but declined to describe the results, AP reported.

The Children's Hospital team's goal is to create stem cells for treating blood diseases like sickle-cell anemia, leukemia and other blood disorders. Two other researchers, Douglas Melton and Kevin Eggan, have received approval from a series of review boards to begin similar work, the institute said. Melton plans to focus on diabetes. Eggan plans to work on neurodegenerative conditions like Lou Gehrig's disease.

By cloning embryos, scientists hope to produce transplant material to treat a variety of diseases. Stem cells can give rise to more specialized cells and tissues that can be genetically matched to patients, avoiding the problem of rejection.

The University of California, San Francisco, is also pursuing the cloning of human embryos, according to AP, joining the race among a small group of researchers in this controversial pursuit.

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