Health Highlights: May 27, 2003

Dog Food Recall Linked to Mad Cow Disease Hong Kong Researchers Pursue SARS Vaccine With Doctors, Will You Pay for What You Get? Families Could Be Shut Out of Organ Donor Process DNA Collection to Target Disease Among Blacks

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

Dog Food Recall Linked to Mad Cow Disease

U.S. consumers are being asked to return dog food that may have come from a Canadian cow that tested positive for mad cow disease.

The suspect food, in 50 pound bags, was produced in Canada by Champion Pet Food of Morinville, Alberta. If found, the food should be held for pickup.

Pet Pantry International of Carson City, Nev., which sells the products by phone or e-mail, said customers should search for two products: "Maintenance Diet" with a "use by" date of "17FEB04" and "Beef with Barley" with a date of "05MAR04."

The voluntary return is a precaution to prevent discarded dog food from getting mixed with feed for cattle, goats or sheep, the Associated Press reports. Customers who bought dog food since February should check their supplies and, if found, should call the company at 1-800-381-7387. Pet Pantry also is using sales records to contact consumers.

Meanwhile, Canadian authorities have slaughtered almost 400 cattle from five of the 17 farms or feed lots quarantined in the investigation. The animals' brains were sent for testing to pinpoint the source of the country's first outbreak of mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.

The outbreak, detected last week in one Alberta cow that was slaughtered in January, caused the United States and other countries to close their markets to Canadian beef products and raised questions about industry regulation.

Agriculture officials now say all 192 animals in the herd of the infected cow have tested negative. In addition to that herd, another 180 have been slaughtered for testing and genetic tracing to find where and when the infected cow was born, according to Brian Evans, chief veterinary officer for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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Hong Kong Researchers Pursue SARS Vaccine

University of Hong Kong scientists said they were developing a possible vaccine for SARS, the acute respiratory infection that has killed hundreds and sickened thousands of people worldwide.

The vaccine will initially be tested on animals, and those results won't be available for at least six months. There are no plans to test the vaccine on humans, the Associated Press reports.

Researchers also have learned the SARS virus apparently doesn't sicken everyone it infects, The New York Times reports, quoting World Health Organization officials.

Blood drawn from people who worked in exotic food markets in China's Guangdong Province -- the source of the virus -- showed that many were infected with the virus but never became ill. This finding bolsters the belief that the SARS coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans, the Times says.

While the SARS outbreak appeared to be easing in parts of Asia -- the hardest-hit region in the world -- the city of Toronto is struggling with a resurgence of cases. Health officials in Canada's largest city acknowledged eight new probable cases of SARS.

Officials also confirmed three more deaths between May 1 and May 25, bringing the total number of fatalities there to 27, the Toronto Star reports.

The officials said there could be as many as 33 possible new cases of infection.

They stressed that the eight new cases were all linked to outbreaks at hospitals, and there was no evidence the respiratory illness was spreading in the general population, the newspaper reports.

In response to the new cases, the World Health Organization Monday placed Toronto back on a list of SARS-affected areas. But it did not issue a travel advisory suggesting that travelers avoid the city, as the agency had done last month, The New York Times reports.

The new outbreak also prompted the United States to issue a travel advisory for Canada. The advisory doesn't say people should avoid Toronto, but that they should take precautions to safeguard their health -- for instance, avoid hospitals that might harbor the virus.

The news continued to improve in Asia, however. Mainland China reported just eight new SARS infections and three deaths Monday; Hong Kong, one new infection and one death; and Taiwan, 15 more cases and no deaths.

The worldwide death toll now stands at 724. More than 8,200 people have been infected since the disease emerged from China's Guangdong province, the AP reports.

The majority of infections and deaths have been in China and Hong Kong.

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With Doctors, Will You Pay for What You Get?

Need your doctor to call in a prescription refill? Or sign a form so your kid can go to camp?

Such requests could cost you, reports The Washington Post.

A still small but growing number of doctors have started charging patients for the administrative tasks that medical offices traditionally have handled for free, considered part of their cost of doing business. Some doctors itemize the charges -- a certain amount for a phone or e-mail conversation with patients or their relatives, a different amount for copying medical records or sending records to a specialist, for instance. Others are opting for a flat surcharge, sometimes called an annual administrative fee.

Whatever the method, the aim is to recoup what doctors say are the ever-growing costs of doing business, which reportedly have increased about 60 percent in the past decade. Doctors most likely to add such fees, says The Post, are those in internal medicine, pediatrics, and family practice -- considered the most patient-intensive and the least profitable specialties.

The culprits, say health-care experts, are the combination of rising overhead and declining reimbursements from insurance companies and the federal government, as well as fewer patient visits but more patient demands for services.

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Families Could Be Shut Out of Organ Donor Process

Organ transplant advocates want to streamline the donation process by removing a donor's family from the approval process.

Now, in most states, a medical official tells a prospective donor's family what the person's wishes were, based on what he or she indicated on a donor card. But the family has the final say. The new method would let doctors harvest someone's organs based solely on the donor authorization form, with the family informed about what would happen but not asked for approval, reports the Associated Press.

Such a change would require a change in laws in most states to make clear that a donor card, which includes a driver's license, is legal authorization for donation.

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DNA Collection to Target Disease Among Blacks

Whether genetics plays a role in the prevalence of certain diseases among blacks could become easier to determine, thanks to a project announced Tuesday by Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The university plans to collect DNA samples from 25,000 black Americans during the next five years, creating the nation's largest bank of DNA from blacks, reports The New York Times.

Incidence rates of certain diseases -- including high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, and kidney failure -- are higher among blacks, and responses to some drugs are different, the Times says. Researchers aren't sure whether the differences stem from genetic, environmental, or social causes, or some combination.

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