Health Highlights: May 14, 2003

Toronto No Longer a SARS Hotspot America Divided on Exercise, Survey Finds California Autism Cases Almost Double in Four Years FDA Slow to Move on Tissue Bank Regulations FDA Rushes Approval for Cancer Treatment

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

Toronto No Longer a SARS Hotspot

Toronto is no longer a hotspot for the global SARS outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Wednesday in taking the Canadian city off its official list. The city's last confirmed case of severe acute respiratory syndrome was isolated April 20, reports the Associated Press.

The disease has killed 24 people in Canada since March, mostly in Toronto, making it the hardest-hit city outside Asia. Last month, the WHO issued a controversial warning against traveling to Toronto, costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars in business and tourism.

Across the world in China, the government announced Wednesday it has begun using thermal scanners at railway stations to detect signs of SARS-related fever among passengers, the AP reports. Officials fear the disease may spread from Beijing and other large cities to poorer rural areas that lack adequate medical resources.

Beijing's city government estimates SARS has cost it $54 million in the first four months of the year, and 60 percent fewer tourists are visiting the city, the AP says.

While many nations are reporting a drop in SARS cases, Taiwan's outbreak is on the upswing.

National Taiwan University Hospital, the island's leading hospital, was shut down Wednesday because it was overwhelmed by an internal outbreak of the disease, The New York Times reports.

More than 250 hospital staff, including at least 40 doctors and 68 nurses, were placed in quarantine. All of the thousands of patients in the hospital were also quarantined.

Some 10,000 residents of the island have been ordered confined to their homes, and violators are subject to fines of more than $8,000. Taiwan has reported 238 cases and 31 deaths.

In Singapore, authorities say the country may have suffered a setback in its efforts to contain the disease. They say test results are pending to confirm a possible outbreak at the nation's largest mental health facility. Singapore had soon hoped to declare itself SARS free, having reported its last confirmed case on April 27.

In Hong Kong, officials are crediting quarantines with reducing its new daily infection number to single digits. The outbreak in the Chinese territory has killed 225 people so far and infected 1,689, the AP reports. But Hong Kong scientists say the outbreak should significantly subside by June or July and end completely by October.

Worldwide, SARS has infected more than 7,400 people and killed at least 581.

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America Divided on Exercise, Survey Finds

One in five American adults exercises regularly and rigorously, while one in four gets little or no exercise, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes.

The report, "Physical Activity Among Adults: United States, 2000," is based on 32,000 interviews conducted three years ago. It describes both leisurely exercise habits and work-related physical activity, including commuting, running errands and performing household chores.

Among the report's findings, provided in a CDC press release:

  • Men are more likely than women to exercise regularly and rigorously, and activity rates generally decline with age.
  • 20 percent of white adults exercise regularly, compared with 14 percent of black adults and 15 percent of Hispanics.
  • One in four adults with an advanced college degree exercises regularly, compared with one in seven of those with less than a high school diploma.
  • Adults with incomes below the poverty level are three times as likely to be physically inactive as adults in the highest income group.
  • Married women are more likely than never-married women to exercise regularly.
  • Adults in the South are more likely to be inactive than those in any other region.

A separate report, also sponsored by the CDC, finds that obesity and inactivity not only cost lives, but dollars -- $93 billion annually to be exact.

In fact, obesity accounted for about 9 percent of total U.S. medical spending in 1998. The average obese person spent $732 annually in medical costs, 37.4 percent more than the average person of normal weight, the second report concludes.

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California Autism Cases Double in Four Years

The number of California children diagnosed with autism has almost doubled in the last four years and there's no explanation for the increase, says a newly released state report.

The identified cases of autistic children in California rose from 10,360 in December 1998 to 20,377 in December 2002, The New York Times reports.

From Jan. 6 to April 4 of this year, there were 832 more autistic children identified by caseworkers. That works out to a rate of almost 10 new cases a day.

Another report released in 1999 found a 273 per cent increase in autism cases over 12 years, according to the Times.

Reporting practices vary from state to state, so it's unclear whether the California findings are indicative of what's happening across the nation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently studying autism rates in 13 states.

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FDA Slow to Move on Tissue Bank Regulations

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received harsh criticism Wednesday for its failure to act on proposed regulations to govern the hundreds of tissue banks in the nation.

Investigations have revealed widespread problems in the industry, including at least one death caused by infected tissue, the Associated Press reports.

The chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins, said she's made repeated attempts to get the FDA to act on proposed regulations to govern the tissue bank industry. Those rules have been pending for more than six years.

Collins charged that the FDA has failed to keep its commitment to address this public health risk and said that bureaucratic inertia has resulted in tragedy, the AP says.

The proposed regulations would force more thorough testing of tissue before it's given to patients and add tighter controls on the processing of human tissue.

An FDA spokesperson told the committee that there is no timetable for the regulations to be finalized but added that they are moving forward.

Collins said she would push for legislation to force the FDA to issue tissue transplant regulations within 90 days.

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FDA Rushes Approval for Cancer Treatment

The FDA has rushed to approve an unproven treatment for one of the most difficult-to-treat cancers -- a malignancy of the blood called multiple myeloma.

After an accelerated review process that lasted less than four months, the agency voted to approve Velcade (bortezomib), the first drug in a new class of cancer-fighting medications called proteasome inhibitors. It targets an enzyme that's responsible for the out-of-control growth of cancerous cells.

Clinical trials involving 188 participants showed 28 percent improved while taking the drug.

Accelerated approval was granted under an FDA program that lets manufacturers market their drugs for life-threatening conditions before the medications are entirely proven safe. The agency has ordered Velcade's maker, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, to conduct additional studies.

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Published on May 14, 2003

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