Health Highlights: May 9, 2003

Thompson: We Can't Mandate Healthy Food Firefly Enzyme Used in Bacteria Detector U.S. Researchers Cite Lack of Stem Cell Lines Texas Clouded by Smoke From Mexican Fires Weight Watchers Ice Cream Sandwiches Recalled Mystery Illness Strikes Cambodia

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

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.

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Firefly Enzyme Used in Bacteria Detector

The chemical that gives fireflies their glow is being used in a device to detect potentially lethal germs such as E. coli and Legionella bacteria in swimming pools and spas.

Microscopic bugs that thrive in warm water pose an infection threat to swimmers or spa users. This device, made by Biotrace International of Bridgend in south Wales, takes only seconds to detect the presence of microbes in water, BBC News Online reports.

The firefly enzymes contained in the device light up when they come into contact with bacteria. The amount of light emitted is measured by a monitor that calculates how much bacteria is present in the water.

The company has sold 15 million kits and has expanded the device to be used in the food industry.

It can take days to get results using traditional methods of detecting bacteria.

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U.S. Researchers Cite Lack of Stem Cell Lines

U.S. researchers are asking President Bush to lift his restrictions on their use of embryonic stem cells, saying there are far fewer lines available than previously thought, the Associated Press reports.

National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni says only 11 lines are available, emphasizing that initial reports of as many as 70 lines were grossly optimistic. President Bush has ordered that scientists who receive federal funding can only use stem cells that were harvested before Aug. 9, 2001.

Zerhouni, writing in Friday's edition of the journal Science, says NIH scientists are hard at work exploring the use of stem cells harvested from human embryos as potential treatments for a range of diseases, from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. These cells can be coaxed into forming organs and other bodily tissues, or into repairing parts of the body damaged by disease. But the embryos they are harvested from die, prompting critics to call the process unethical.

Zerhouni says many of the stem cell lines initially thought usable were in the early stages of development, and aren't ready for use yet. The AP also cites another scientist who says many of the existing lines were developed in the presence of mouse cells, and therefore may be contaminated with viruses and other substances. Mouse cells are no longer required to grow the stem cells, the report says.

The U.S. scientists say the country is quickly falling behind other, less restrictive nations in this vital area of research.

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Texas Clouded by Smoke From Mexican Fires

Two-thirds of Texas and many areas of neighboring states are clouded by smoke drifting from agricultural fires burning in Mexico and Central America, reports United Press International, which cites experts who say the problem will continue for at least the next week.

Officials are warning people with asthma, other breathing problems and heart conditions to stay indoors with their air conditioners on "recirculate" -- especially where the problem is most prevalent in the McAllen, Mission, Edinburg and Laredo areas.

Farmers in Mexico and Central America traditionally burn their old crops to prepare the land for new plantings. But drought conditions in many of these areas mean some of the fires have the potential to burn out of control. And U.S. weather experts say the wind direction that's sweeping the smoke into the United States isn't expected to change any time soon.

So far, the problem isn't as bad as in 1998, reports UPI, when the Houston, Dallas and central Texas regions had very unhealthy air for several days.

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Weight Watchers Ice Cream Sandwiches Recalled

The manufacturer of Weight Watchers SmartOnes vanilla ice cream sandwiches is recalling certain batches of the product, which may actually be made with a different ice cream that contains undeclared peanuts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

People with severe allergies or sensitivity to peanuts are at risk of life-threatening reactions if they eat the product, the FDA says. No injuries have been reported so far.

The product was sold in batches of six in plastic "clam-shell" containers. The ice cream, due to the manufacturing and labeling errors, may appear a slightly darker color than the usual vanilla white. The suspect containers are marked with the following two-line manufacturing code:

1053 RD SAND
3990 HHMM

The HHMM above represents the time of manufacture in military time.

The sandwiches were sold in retail stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee.

For more information, contact the manufacturer, Frostbite Brands, at 1-877-234-0022.

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Mystery Illness Strikes Cambodia

A mystery illness -- which doctors have confirmed is not SARS -- is sweeping through an area of northeastern Cambodia, the Associated Press reports.

The unknown disease has killed seven people and infected nearly 400 others in two villages since it first appeared in early March.

Doctors visiting the villages say the illness does have some of the same symptoms -- coughing, fever, breathing difficulties -- seen in people with SARS. But people with this mystery illness also suffer diarrhea and maintain normal white blood cell counts, two things not usually found in people with SARS, the AP says.

One western doctor who tended to people sick with the illness described it as a form of pneumonia preying on people in poor health.

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Scott RobertsRobert Preidt

Published on May 09, 2003

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