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Health Highlights: March 25, 2003

More SARS Cases in Hong Kong United States Unprepared for Botulinum Toxin Attack Common Insecticide May Cause Parkinson's Disease Dentists' Offices Could Aid in Bioterror Attack Study to Compare Herb Versus Antidepressant High Vitamin Concentrations Prompt Milk Recall

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

More SARS Cases in Hong Kong

Twenty-six more people in Hong Kong have become sick in the last 24 hours with Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), The New York Times reports.

Those new cases include nine people from a Hong Kong tour group that visited Beijing.

The Hong Kong Hospital Authority said Tuesday that there were 286 people sick with SARS, and another four people in hospitals who did not yet have the pneumonia that, along with high fever, is one of the hallmarks of the disease.

It was confirmed Tuesday that the chief executive of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority has SARS. Dr. William Ho, one of two doctors in charge of the government's response to the disease outbreak, was hospitalized Sunday night.

China's Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong, has had a similar outbreak. But the Chinese government prevented the country's media from reporting on it, and has refused to release figures on the number of infected there, the Times reports.


United States Unprepared for Botulinum Toxin Attack

Federal experts say the United States isn't prepared to deal with a bioterrorism attack using botulinum toxin.

The government has only enough antitoxin -- about 1,000 doses -- to cope with a small-scale attack using botulinum toxin, the Associated Press reports.

But federal officials say the issue is a top priority and they're assembling all available resources to deal with it.

The toxin easily poisons anyone who eats it, and experts fear that bioterrorists could use it in an attempt to infect the nation's food supply. Just one gram of botulinum toxin could kill as many as one million people, the AP reports.

Basic microbiology skills are all that's needed to disseminate the toxin, which is found in soil.


Common Insecticide May Cause Parkinson's Disease

The insecticide permethrin may cause a series of chemical changes in the brain that can lead to the development of Parkinson's disease, says a Virginia Polytechnic University study.

Researchers studied changes in brain chemicals in mice exposed to different levels of permethrin, often used on clothing to kill and repel ticks and mosquitoes, BBC News Online reports.

The study found that exposure to the insecticide resulted in reduced levels of the chemical transmitter dopamine in the brains of the mice.

It also found that permethrin led to increased production of a protein that's a major component of fibrous tangles found in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease.

Just a small dose of the insecticide was enough to cause these chemical changes in the brains of the mice. The study was presented at the recent meeting of the American Chemical Society.


Dentists' Offices Could Aid in Bioterror Attack

If a bioterror attack were to overwhelm the nation's hospital system, American dentists have the skills, training and equipment to assist in the aftermath, the Associated Press reports.

Dental offices and dental schools could serve as makeshift hospitals to provide services, including triage, diagnosis, decontamination, and disease detection surveillance, the wire service reports. In fact, representatives of the American Dental Association (ADA) and the U.S. Public Health Service are due to meet in Washington, D.C., at the end of the month to discuss the issue.

Dental offices already contain sterilization equipment, air and gas lines, X-ray machines and various medical instruments. The only question is, after continuing education instruction and certification, would dentists and their staffs be prepared to take on such a role?

An ADA report issued last September concluded that every dental school should require basic knowledge of the symptoms of diseases that can be spread through bioterrorism, and certain preventive measures.


Study to Compare Herb Versus Antidepressant

How good is St. John's wort in combating minor depression? The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has just launched a four-year study to find out.

The $4 million, three-site trial involving 300 participants will compare the herbal supplement to the prescription antidepressant citalopram, marketed in the United States under the brand name Celexa.

Men and women ages 18 to 65 who have the common symptoms of minor depression will be eligible, the NIH says in a prepared statement. These symptoms, prevalent for at least six months but less than two years, may include:

  • A depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in daily activities.
  • Significant weight loss or gain, or decrease or increase in appetite.
  • Disturbed sleep.
  • Noticeable agitation or slowness.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy.
  • Inappropriate feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Diminished ability to concentrate, indecisiveness.
  • Repeated thoughts of death or suicide.

Trials are being conducted in Los Angeles, Boston, and Pittsburgh. For more information, visit:


High Vitamin Concentrations Prompt Milk Recall

Reiter Dairy Inc. is recalling 150 half gallons of Topps Vitality Fat Free Chocolate Milk because it contains much higher-than-labeled levels of vitamins A and D, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

Due to a manufacturing error, about 44,700 International Units (IUs) of vitamin A are present in each quart of the recalled product, instead of the intended 2,000 to 3,000 IUs.

Too much vitamin A can lead to severe health problems, including birth defects in babies born to mothers who consume excess levels during the first trimester of pregnancy. Among infants, too much vitamin A can cause an increase in the pressure of the fluid within the brain, hair loss, and abnormal changes in bone formation. For people of all ages, excess vitamin A can lead to irreversible liver disease.

The same product also contains too much vitamin D -- 4,000 IUs instead of the intended 400 to 600 IUs. Consumption of too much vitamin D may result in abnormally high blood levels of calcium and phosphate, which, in rare instances, may lead to abnormal deposits of calcium in various parts of the body.

The fat free chocolate milk, packed in 1/2 gallon containers coded "MAR 27," was distributed to retail stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Consumers are urged to return the product to the place of purchase for a full refund.

You can contact the company at 1-800-362-0825.

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