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Health Highlights: Nov. 27, 2006

FDA Issues Methadone Health Advisory Contraceptive Would Keep Men From Ejaculating Sperm Humpback Whales Have Type of Brain Cell Found in Humans South Korea Moves to Control New Bird-Flu Outbreak China Proposes New Transplant Rules

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

FDA Issues Methadone Health Advisory

Some patients who started methadone treatment for severe pain or who switched to the drug after using other strong narcotic painkillers have overdosed on methadone and suffered life-threatening side effects or died, says a U.S. Food and Drug Administration public health advisory issued Monday.

Overdoses of methadone can cause slow or shallow breathing and dangerous changes in heartbeat that may go unnoticed by patients, the FDA said.

The agency noted that methadone only provides pain relief for four to eight hours, but can linger in the body for eight to 59 hours, the Associated Press reported. If patients take more methadone before previous doses have been eliminated from the body, the drug can build up to toxic levels.

The FDA said doctors should prescribe methadone carefully and closely monitor patients. The advisory also said that doctors must instruct patients not to take more than the prescribed amount of methadone without first checking with the doctor.

The use of methadone is increasing. In 2003, there were more than two million methadone prescriptions dispensed in the United States. With that increased use, there's been a rise in the number of methadone-related deaths, the AP reported.

In 1999, methadone was listed as the cause of 623 unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States. That increased to 2,452 deaths in 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

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Contraceptive Would Keep Men From Ejaculating Sperm

Scientists in the United Kingdom are working to develop a contraceptive that would prevent men from ejaculating sperm, BBC News reported.

Researchers at King's College London noted that drugs used to treat blood pressure and schizophrenia had this effect, but these drugs cause side effects such as dizziness and drowsiness and couldn't be used as contraceptives.

After further investigation, the researchers identified chemicals that prevent the longitudinal muscle in the vas deferens from contracting and propelling sperm into the penis.

The scientists plan to test this treatment in animals and humans. If those trials are successful, the contraceptive may be available within five years, BBC News reported.

Several other kinds of male contraceptives -- including patches, injections and implants -- are currently under development. However, most of these are designed to trick the brain into switching off hormone production.

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Humpback Whales Have Type of Brain Cell Found in Humans

Humpback whales have a type of brain cell called a spindle neuron that's found in the cerebral cortex of large primates such as humans and gorillas, says a study published online Monday in the journal The Anatomical Record.

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City said they found that the whales not only have spindle neurons in the same area of the cortex where these brain cells are found in hominids, but also in other parts of their brain, CBC News reported.

Spindle cells are believed to play a role in cognitive processes such as learning, memory and recognition.

Similar cells have already been identified in toothed whales, such as killer whales, which have been considered to be more intelligent that humpbacks and other baleen whales.

"In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that include intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage," the study authors wrote.

"It is thus likely that some of these abilities are related to comparable histologic complexity in brain organization in cetaceans and in hominids," the researchers noted.

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South Korea Moves to Control New Bird-Flu Outbreak

South Korean officials have ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of chickens and ducks, along with hundreds of pigs and dogs, to control a new outbreak of the H5N1 bird-flu virus near the southern city of Iksan.

This is the first outbreak in South Korea in three years, Agence France Presse reported. The highly contagious H5N1 strain of avian flu can be fatal to humans. There have been no reports of any people getting sick in this outbreak.

Two other outbreaks caused by a milder strain of bird flu that's not lethal to humans were reported in other areas of South Korea.

In response to the reports of bird flu in South Korea, Japan suspended all poultry imports from that country and North Korea announced new measures to prevent the spread of the virus across its border, AFP reported.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed more than 150 people worldwide and prompted the slaughter of tens of millions of poultry. Experts fear that if the H5N1 virus mutates into a form that's easily transmitted between humans, it could spark a global pandemic.

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China Proposes New Transplant Rules

Proposed new laws governing organ transplants in China are designed to prevent unqualified doctors and hospitals from harming patients, the official state Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.

As a result of a lack of clear organ transplant laws, some transplants are being done by "unqualified doctors with substandard medical equipment," resulting in patient deaths, according to Xinhua.

The news agency also said there's a popular perception that some hospitals in China are sacrificing quality care to perform as many lucrative transplants as possible.

There are also concerns that the organs of executed prisoners are being harvested without consent, the Associated Press reported.

The proposed rules would require a new organization under the Ministry of Health to oversee the registration and allocation of all donated organs. Only a limited number of hospitals would be licensed to conduct transplants and the quality of the surgeries would be monitored by government officials.

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