Health Highlights: May 11, 2003

Taiwan Steps Up SARS Fight High Cancer Rates on Vieques Revealed U.S. School Lunches Have Too Much Fat, Audit Finds Panel Urges Total Asbestos Ban in U.S Thompson: We Can't Mandate Healthy Food

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

Taiwan Steps Up SARS Fight

The fight against SARS might be winding down in some parts of the world, but Taiwan stepped up its security measures Sunday as officials there fear the illness is spreading from the capital to the countryside.

With one new death and 12 new cases reported Sunday, the government ordered all subway passengers in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei to wear medical masks, and is installing video cameras to watch 8,000 people quarantined at home. The deadly respiratory illness has killed 19 and infected 184 in Taiwan, where the transmission pattern is described as high by the World Health Organization, the Associated Press reports. SARS concerns prompted the U.S. State Department to authorize the voluntary departure of family members and non-emergency personnel at its Taiwan offices.

The disease has now killed at least 534 people and infected more than 7,300 people in more than 25 countries.

China, where the disease originated, announced five new deaths and 69 cases Sunday -- the lowest one-day increase in new infections in weeks.

But even though new infection rates have dropped dramatically in Beijing in recent days, WHO officials say it is too early to declare that its outbreak has peaked because China's reporting of cases is faulty. Beijing health authorities have admitted that they can't explain how half of the more than 2,200 SARS patients there caught the virus.

Meanwhile, an AIDS researcher from New York City said the SARS virus seems to attack human cells in a manner akin to HIV, which may offer clues for finding the best treatment.

In Hong Kong, Dr. David Ho, the scientific director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center who helped pioneer the "cocktail" drug treatment for AIDS patients, said there had been promising results from laboratory tests on the SARS virus using an HIV treatment, synthetic peptides.

And in California, officials at the University of California, Berkeley, now say they will ease their SARS ban and allow 80 students from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong to attend classes that begin May 27. But the school will maintain its ban on nearly 600 students who had enrolled in English as a second language classes through a UC extension program.

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High Cancer Rates on Vieques Revealed

Cancer rates on Puerto Rico's Vieques island, where the U.S. Navy conducted bombing exercises for six decades, are far higher than on the main island, new government statistics show.

Residents of the island are 27 percent more likely to have cancer than other Puerto Ricans, and Vieques cancer patients are more likely to die, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The Puerto Rico Health Department conducted an 18-month house-to-house census across Vieques to determine the island's cancer rate: 341 cases for every 10,000 residents versus 270 cases per 10,000 on the main island. A smaller sampling also concluded Vieques has higher instances of asthma, diabetes and hypertension than Puerto Rico as a whole.

Concern about cancer had fueled the campaign to force the Navy to cease bombing and leave the land it had controlled since World War II. The Navy turned over 15,500 acres, including the bombing range, on the eastern side of the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior May 1 to establish a wildlife refuge. Four years ago, the Navy admitted it had improperly used a few hundred bullets coated with depleted uranium, which is a carcinogen that remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years.

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U.S. School Lunches Have Too Much Fat, Audit Finds

School lunches have more nutritional value these days but there's still too much fat.

That's the conclusion of a U.S. congressional audit of 22 schools nationwide that found three-fourths of them were serving lunches containing 34 percent fat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the lunch program that feeds 27 million kids each day, has set a 30 percent fat content standard.

The good news from the General Accounting Office audit, conducted during the 1998-99 school year, is that the picture has improved since the 1991-92 school year when meals contained 38 percent fat, the Associated Press reports.

The report, commissioned by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), also found that cholesterol levels have dropped. Elementary school meals had 68 milligrams of cholesterol in 1999, a 19 percent drop from 1992. High school meals saw a similar decrease during the period, from 95 milligrams to 75 milligrams. Those levels are both below the recommended 100 milligrams.

Vitamin C levels also were high. Elementary pupils were served meals containing 37 milligrams, while high school lunches had 42 milligrams. The government recommends 18.

But lunches in 1998-99 had too much salt. The meals in elementary schools had 1,285 milligrams, and high school lunches had 1,502 milligrams - more than the recommended 800 milligrams.

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Panel Urges Total Asbestos Ban in U.S.

A panel of doctors, business and government experts is calling for a total ban on asbestos in all new products sold in the United States.

According to The New York Times, the panel's draft study reported by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Congress should ban "the production, manufacture, distribution, and importation of products with commercially added asbestos." The proposal excludes insulation or other products that contain only trace amounts of natural asbestos.

The study also calls for a national registry of mesothelioma victims "to facilitate epidemiology studies to evaluate the effects of asbestos exposure." Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer caused by asbestos that takes 20 to 40 years to develop, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The use of asbestos, a heat-resistant mineral put in insulation, roofing tiles and brakes, has fallen drastically since the early 1970's, when it was conclusively linked to lung and other cancers. Asbestos mining ended in the United States last year. Many European countries already ban asbestos, and the European Union has said that all its members must ban it by 2005.

The report comes from the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes environmentally friendly development, under a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Thompson: We Can't Mandate Healthy Food

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Thursday that the federal government can't force companies by law to make and promote more nutritious food products in order to reduce the growing problem of obesity in the nation, the Associated Press reports.

Instead, Thompson told a Consumer Federation of America conference on obesity that food companies can use advertising to help Americans make healthy eating choices.

He claimed that would be more effective than government action forcing food companies to take steps such as including health information on food product labels.

Thompson said he would recognize and give out more awards to food manufacturers that promoted healthy eating and fitness.

But a spokesperson for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest said it will take legislation, not just pressure, to get food makers more involved in the fight against obesity.

Jean Patman

Jean Patman

Published on May 11, 2003

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