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Health Highlights: March 29, 2003

Heart Problems Bedevil Smallpox Program Mystery Flu Kills Doctor Who Warned of It Chemical May Be Toxic to Women, Girls Lice Shampoo and Lotion Health Advisory University's Internet System Tracks Medical Errors

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

Heart Problems Bedevil Smallpox Program

A panel of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday recommended that the field of candidates for a smallpox vaccination be sharply limited.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices now says that anyone with three known risk factors for heart disease shouldn't get the vaccine, even if they don't have any diagnosed history of heart problems, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Those risk factors are smoking, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels. This would substantially cut down on the number of people eligible for the jab. Earlier this week, the government had urged people with a history of heart disease to put off getting vaccinated.

As the Pentagon announced Friday that a third person who recently got the vaccine died of a heart attack, four states -- California, New York, Illinois, and Florida -- have temporarily suspended the program, according to the Times.

The Department of Defense said that a 55-year-old National Guardsman, who was called to active duty and who got the vaccination last week, suffered a heart attack on Monday and died the next day. An autopsy showed that the guardsman had "substantial narrowing of the blood vessels in his heart," and a history of heart disease, before the vaccination. The Times reports that he was also a smoker.

The guardsman's death is the first in the military, which has vaccinated some 350,000 people so far. There have been 10 reports of inflammation of the heart, but the Pentagon says they've recovered.

Two health-care workers who were recently vaccinated also died of heart attacks in the last week. Health officials said both had had a history of heart disease.

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Mystery Flu Kills Doctor Who Warned of It

The mysterious flu-like illness that has spread worldwide in the last month has killed an Italian doctor who was the first to warn about it.

According to the Associated Press, Dr. Carlo Urbani, a World Health Organization expert on communicable diseases, died of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) on Saturday in Thailand. Urbani contracted the illness in Vietnam, where he was treating an American businessman who also has since died, the AP reports.

Meanwhile, the normally busy Hong Kong has slowed down significantly because of the illness. Officials there reported an additional 45 cases and another death Saturday, raising the total there to 470 cases and 12 deaths, the AP reports.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference Saturday that the number of cases in the U.S. rose to 62. Worldwide, the number was 1,491, Gerberding said. The illness, as of Friday, caused 54 deaths in at least 13 countries, according to the WHO.

The CDC issued new guidelines to travelers and to those affected by SARS in the U.S. People with the disease should stay at home for 10 days, Gerberding said. "They should not go to work. They should not go to school," she said. However, household members need not restrict their activities, she said.

No quarantine is needed in the U.S. because the transmission of SARS here is not as rapid or widespread as it is in other nations, Gerberding said.

The agency expanded its travel advisory to include all of mainland China. Earlier advisories included only the Guangdong province of that nation.

The CDC further advised that surfaces where the virus could have been be disinfected. The suspected coronavirus can survive for two to three hours on surfaces, Gerberding said.

Concern that the deadly global respiratory illness spreads via air travel increased Friday with word that a Singapore Airlines flight attendant on a flight out of New York is now ill.

Officials are warning against travel to the hardest-hit areas in Asia -- Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Because of that, the Rolling Stones announced Friday that they had to cancel two concerts in China. "We are very sad and disappointed not to be able to do these concerts," Mick Jagger said in a statement. It would have been the rock group's first gigs in China.

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Chemical May Be Toxic to Women, Girls

A chemical that's an ingredient in Teflon could pose a health risk for girls and women of childbearing age, according to a study from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The New York Times reports that the agency is concerned that the chemical, ammonium perfluorooctanoate (C-8), builds up in human blood and that it could be toxic. A draft report on C-8 found that the margin of exposure was much lower in girls and women than it was in boys and men, according to the Times account.

C-8 is used to make materials for the aerospace, transportation, and electronic industries as well as Teflon, the Times reports.

Studies have shown that C-8 damages livers in rats and, in high doses, causes reproductive and development problems. Studies in humans have been inconclusive, the Times writes.

The report was in draft form, but was released by the Environmental Working Group, which wants tighter regulation of chemicals. Irvin Lipp, a spokesman for DuPont, which makes Teflon, says the company is in "full cooperation" with the EPA. He added, however, that the report was preliminary and that it was "stolen," the Times quotes him as saying.

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Lice Shampoo and Lotion Health Advisory

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a health advisory about labeling changes for Lindane lotion and shampoo, used to treat scabies and lice.

The advisory announces major updates to the labeling of these products, including more health warnings for doctors and patients and the addition of a "medication guide" meant to be given directly to patients.

The labeling has been changed to include a boxed warning that says, because of the potential for neurotoxicity, Lindane products should be used only if other treatments are not tolerable to the patient or other approved therapies have failed.

The warning also states that Lindane products should be used with caution in patients who weigh less than about 110 pounds. The products are not recommended for infants.

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University's Internet System Tracks Medical Errors

The University of California has a new Internet-based system that will help track medical errors at five of the university's campus medical centers.

It's believed this is the first project in the United States that uses the Internet to connect academic medical centers on a system-wide basis, the Associated Press reports.

This new system enables medical centers to monitor medication error trends, including incorrect dosage or the wrong kind of drug. The system also features a "harm score system" that evaluates each error and compares it with other errors.

Patients will not be able to access the UC system.

Some major private health-care systems have already installed similar Internet-based systems to improve efficiency and quality.

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