Health Highlights: June 13, 2003

2 Human Transmissions of Monkeypox Probed Senate Committee Passes Medicare Expansion Bill WHO Drops SARS Travel Warning in Parts of China Giving Birth Just as Safe on Weekends as on Weekdays Survey Finds Anti-Drug Ads for Teens Are Effective Studies Raise Concerns About Gene Therapy

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

2 Human Transmissions of Monkeypox Probed

Health officials in Wisconsin are now investigating two possible human-to-human transmissions of the monkeypox virus.

In what would be the first known transmissions of the virus by people in the United States, officials are testing whether two Wisconsin health-care workers may have contracted monkeypox from patients. Until now, the U.S. outbreak, the first in the Western Hemisphere, was thought to have been spread to humans only by infected prairie dogs that are sold as pets, the Associated Press reports.

Patrice M. Skonieczny, infection control coordinator at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, said a nurse developed monkeypox symptoms after caring for a patient who has a possible case of the disease. In the second instance, Dr. John Melski, a dermatologist at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, said a medical assistant is suspected of getting the disease after helping treat a 3-year-old girl May 22 who was later diagnosed with monkeypox.

As of Thursday, U.S. health officials had confirmed a total of 12 human cases of the disease: four each in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Also, 54 possible cases had been reported -- 25 in Indiana, 17 in Wisconsin, 11 in Illinois and one in New Jersey.

No one has died from the disease, but at least 14 patients with symptoms have been hospitalized, including a child with encephalitis, or brain inflammation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. No details about the child's condition were released.

The federal government, moving to contain the outbreak, has banned the sale of prairie dogs, banned the import of African rodents and recommended that people exposed to monkeypox get a smallpox vaccination.


Senate Committee Passes Medicare Expansion Bill

A bill that favors the largest expansion of Medicare in its 38-year history was approved Thursday night by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

By a count of 16-5, the committee voted to add prescription drug benefits and make significant changes in Medicare, The New York Times reports.

The bill, which helps push efforts to offer elderly people better access to medicines that can prolong their lives and improve their quality of life, would give private health plans a significant role in providing those and other services to the estimated 40 million elderly and disabled people in Medicare.

The bill is expected to reach the Senate floor next week.


WHO Drops SARS Travel Warning in Parts of China

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday dropped its SARS travel warning for some parts of China, including Guangdong province, where the deadly respiratory disease first started late last year.

But the U.N. agency left Beijing and Taiwan on the list. And, while it continued to leave Toronto off the travel warning list, it put the Canadian city in a more severe category of disease transmission because of the export of one case to the United States, according to the Associated Press.

The WHO has been saying for the last few days that the worldwide SARS outbreak may be nearing its end.

But even with that good news, authorities in Taiwan on Friday began investigating whether the island underreported SARS deaths.

As of Friday, there have been more than 8,300 reported SARS cases around the world and 794 people have died. China and Hong Kong have had the most infections and deaths.


Giving Birth Just as Safe on Weekends as on Weekdays

Don't fret about having your baby on a weekend - it's perfectly safe.

Contrary to what some previous studies suggested, it's just as safe to have a baby on the weekend as it is on a weekday, says a study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Those previous studies seemed to support long-held beliefs that it was riskier to give birth on a weekend because hospitals were often short-staffed and had less experienced staff on duty on the weekends, CBC News Online reports.

This new study followed more than 1.5 million birth in California between 1995 and 1997. They did find that the death rate among newborns was higher on the weekends: 3.12 per 1,000 compared to 2.80 per 1,000 on weekdays.

But the percentage of very low-birth weight babies was 1.11 per cent on weekends and 0.95 per cent during the week. When the researchers adjusted for birth weight, they concluded the increased odds of newborns dying on the weekends were no longer significant.


Survey Finds Anti-Drug Ads for Teens Are Effective

Anti-drug ads do help keep teenagers away from drugs, says a survey conducted for the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

The survey of more than 7,000 teenagers in grades 7 through 12 across the United States found that teens who see anti-drug ads at least once a day are less likely to do drugs than teens who don't see the ads.

Teens exposed to the ads daily were nearly 40 per cent less likely to try speed, 30 per cent less likely to use Ecstasy and 15 per cent less likely to smoke marijuana, CBC News Online reports.


Studies Raise Concerns About Gene Therapy

More safety concerns about gene therapy have surfaced in new studies that suggest gene therapy may have a greater chance of causing cancer than previously believed, The New York Times reports.

Gene therapy is a relatively new field. It often uses partly disabled viruses to carry genes into human cells in an effort to correct gene defects.

But some new studies found the disabled viruses used in gene therapy often land on or near genes in human cells. That can result in the gene being inadvertently switched on or off, leading to unexpected effects such as cancer, the Times reports.

One of the studies, published Friday in the journal Science, found the disabled virus used in one form of gene therapy hit a gene 34 percent of the time, compared to the 22 percent that might be expected if the process had been random.

The study also found the virus seemed to prefer landing at the beginning of genes, a point that plays a key role in switching genes on or off, The Times reports.

Safety concerns about gene therapy were highlighted a few months ago in a case involving two French children. Gene therapy was used to cure them of a rare immune disorder. But both children developed leukemia.

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