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Health Highlights: June 16, 2002

Smallpox Vaccine Recommendations Due Warning on Mercury-Free Blood Pressure Monitors Working Vacations Are Unhealthy AMA To Discuss Residents' Hours, Dwindling Membership Groups Blast New U.S. Plan on Ephedra Soviet Weapon Mishap Caused Smallpox Outbreak

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

Smallpox Vaccine Recommendations Due

The issue of whether to bring back smallpox vaccinations -- and who should get them -- goes under the spotlight this week when a top advisory panel meets to make recommendations to the Bush administration.

The 15-member Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which determines the nation's vaccine policy, is weighing the issue due to heightened concerns of a bioterrorism attack, reports the Associated Press.

A top concern about the vaccine is the side effects. Though rare, they can be deadly, and in the event that all Americans were vaccinated, several hundred people would likely die from the side effects.

Routine smallpox vaccinations ended in the United States in 1972 and the disease was eradicated in 1980, although samples still exist in labs in the U.S. and Russia.

The panel expects to make the final recommendations on Thursday. The decision will then be turned over to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

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Warning on Mercury-Free Blood Pressure Monitors

Efforts to fade out the use of blood pressure monitors that use mercury have given rise to a whole new significant health problem -- inaccurate blood pressure readings.

Experts with the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) warn that newer blood pressure reading devices may not use the toxic metal, but they may be unreliable and result in false diagnoses or inappropriate treatment, reports the New York Times.

The push to stop using the old mercury gauges began in 1998, when concerns of air and water contamination from inappropriate disposal of mercury in the gauges prompted the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups to aim for elimination of the devices by 2005.

But amid rumors of false blood pressure readings from the newer devices that have led to illness and even death, the AHA and NHLBI are calling for a better system to make sure any new monitors are accurate and reliable.

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Working Vacations Are Unhealthy

In this era of portable computers and mobile phones, people are finding it harder to get away from work, even on vacation. Several recently released surveys bear out this trend, reports HealthDay.

One survey of more than 1,300 randomly selected workers found that just over half of those polled said they planned to stay in touch with work while on vacation, up from 40 percent last year.

A second survey of 645 business executives found that one-quarter of the executives planned to be in daily contact with the office while on vacation, and more than 60 percent planned to check in at least once a week.

Not only can such work obsession undermine any reduction in stress achieved from time away from the office, but there could also be a physical price to pay for mixing pressure with pleasure. Still another study of more than 12,000 middle-age men who were at high risk for heart disease found that the more often these men took annual vacations, the less likely they were to die from heart disease during a nine-year period.

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AMA To Discuss Residents' Hours, Dwindling Membership

Less than a week after a major accrediting organization for teaching hospitals laid down strict new limits on hours residents can work, the American Medical Association is set to take up the same issue as its annual meeting kicks off today in Chicago.

The rules, announced last week by Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, limit the average work week for residents to 80 hours and prohibit shifts of longer than 24 hours. They go into effect in July 2003.

The AMA proposals to also set down working limits for residents would be a first for the organization, reports the Associated Press, and would be in response to widespread criticism of overworked doctors-in-training and reports of sometimes serious errors that can result.

Also on the AMA's agenda will be a close review of reviving the organization's dwindling membership. The AMA reportedly lost more than 12,000 members last year in one of the steepest declines of a 20-year drop in membership.

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Groups Blast New U.S. Plan on Ephedra

The Bush administration's order to conduct a new wave of research on the safety of the dietary supplement ephedra is being blasted by consumer watchdogs, who two years ago called for warning labels -- and even an outright ban -- due to its risk of causing heart attack and stroke.

Groups including Public Citizen cited research, including a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine, that linked the supplement with more than 50 deaths and 1,000 complications resulting from use of the herb, which is used for weight loss and bodybuilding.

The group said that starting from scratch would be unethical, reports the Associated Press.

In a separate move, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday ordered six companies to stop selling synthetic forms of ephedrine that are disguised as the herb. Synthetic ephedrine has long been illegal. The FDA ordered a seventh company, meanwhile, to stop selling "energizing herbs" containing high ephedra doses. The mixtures are being marketed on the Internet as "legal speed" and alternatives to LSD.

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Soviet Weapon Mishap Caused Smallpox Outbreak

A Soviet testing of weaponized smallpox in the 1970s caused a small outbreak of the highly contagious disease, killing two children and a young woman and prompting the emergency vaccination of 50,000 people, reports the New York Times.

According to a new report, the outbreak, which Moscow never acknowledged, happened when a ship doing ecological research came within close proximity of deadly plume of smallpox germs that had been created by a military weapons test.

A crew member on the ship returned to the port town of Aralsk, on the Aral sea, and spread the virus. The outbreak prompted health teams to disinfect homes, quarantine hundreds of people, and administer the vaccinations.

Experts at the Monterey Institute of International Studies compiled the report, using formerly secret Soviet documents and interviews with survivors.

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