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Health Highlights: Nov. 4, 2006

Houston Ends Flu Shot Progam for Early VotersFactors for a 'Healthy Community' Identified WHO Calls Chinese Bird-Flu Situation 'Confusing' Fish and Seafood Species Could Collapse by 2048: Report Sharon Moved to Intensive CareU.S. Med Schools Urge Students to Resist Drug Company Pressure

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

Houston Ends Flu Shot Progam for Early Voters

Flu vaccinations have entered the sometimes ugly world of politics.

The Associated Press reports that the city of Houston has stopped what at first seemed to be an excellent campaign to promote getting a flu shot, especially for those who need one the most. Mayor Bill White had offered free flu vaccinations to anyone over the age of 50 at early voting sites around the city.

But, says the wire service, Republican politicians objected because the neighborhoods where the vaccinations were offered were primarily black and Hispanic, which the GOP leaders claimed contained mostly Democrat voters. Houston health officials denied the charge, the A.P. reported, saying the selected neighborhoods were the ones that needed the vaccine the most.

White, who ended the program after about 1,300 shots had been administered, is former head of the Texas Democratic Party. But he told the wire service that politics was not behind the flu shot program. "There was no political motive whatsoever to do it," the A.P. quotes White as saying.

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Factors for a "Healthy Community" Identified

Is your town a healthy town?

Researchers at Saint Louis University say they've identified certain characteristics that encourage both physical activity and esthetic satisfaction in a community environment.

One of the lead researchers, Laura Brennan Ramirez, an adjunct assistant professor of community health at Saint Louis University School of Public Health, said in a news release, "We haven't really designed our communities well for older adults, particularly once they get to the point that they can't drive." And, Ramirez adds, constantly using a car "detracts from our physical, social and mental health."

Among the common factors the scientists determined were needed to maintain healthy communities were more use of hiking and biking trails and crosswalks; construction of sidewalks and mass transit to support physical activity; the use of monuments and historic attractions to encourage walking; creation of interconnecting physical education programs in schools and on the job.

The findings are published in the December 2006 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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WHO Calls Chinese Bird-Flu Situation 'Confusing'

China's lack of openness about its handling of bird-flu cases makes it difficult for experts to determine if the dangerous H5N1 virus is mutating and spreading, a World Health Organization official told Agence France Presse Friday.

"The situation in China is quite confusing and there is some conflicting information," said Julie Hall, the WHO's coordinator of epidemic alert and response in China.

"We really don't know how many strains of bird flu there are in China because we have limited amounts of information shared with us by the Ministry of Agriculture and the virus samples we have asked for have not been shared," Hall told AFP.

She made her remarks after Chinese officials discounted claims by U.S. and Hong Kong scientists that a new strain of bird flu -- called the "Fujian-like" strain -- had appeared in southern China.

China's Ministry of Agriculture said the strain of bird flu that's emerged in southern China is consistent with earlier strains, AFP reported.

Expert worry that the H5N1 bird-flu virus could mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between humans and spark a global pandemic.

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Fish and Seafood Species Could Collapse by 2048: Report

Populations of fish and seafood species in the world's oceans could collapse by 2048 if current overfishing and pollution trends continue, says a report published Friday in the journal Science.

The team of international experts that wrote the report spent four years analyzing data from a variety of sources, the Associated Press reported.

"At this point, 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed -- that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating," said lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. "If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime -- by 2048."

He added that it's not too late to turn things around as long as action is taken soon, the AP reported.

"We need a shift from single species management to ecosystem management. It just requires a big chunk of political will to do it," Worm said.

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Sharon Moved to Intensive Care

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was moved to an intensive care unit Friday after a deterioration in his heart function and overall condition, according to a spokesman for the Sheba Medical Center outside of Tel Aviv.

Sharon, who contracted a new infection that affected his heart, was in stable condition, hospital spokesman David Weinberg said on Friday.

The former prime minister, 78, has been in a coma since he suffered a major stroke in January. Due to the severity of the stroke, experts believe he will not recover, the Associated Press reported.

Sharon has had several operations to stop bleeding in his brain, along with a number of other minor procedures. He had an initial minor stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before he suffered the major stroke on January 4.

He spent months in a Jerusalem hospital before he was transferred in May to the long-term care facility at Sheba Medical Center. In July, Sharon was moved to intensive care for dialysis when his kidneys began to fail. He was transferred back to the respiratory rehabilitation department after his condition improved, the AP reported.

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U.S. Med Schools Urge Students to Resist Drug Company Pressure

Some U.S. medical schools have introduced new programs to teach students and doctors how to challenge drug company sales pitches that critics say can influence doctors' drug prescribing habits, the Associated Press reported.

The drug industry spends billions of dollars a year on marketing directed at doctors. To counter that, some medical schools now offer lectures and continuing education courses that encourage doctors to challenge claims made during drug company sales presentations.

While that's a start, there are still too few medical schools willing to deal with the issue in a significant way, Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, told the AP.

Part of the problem is doctors' attitudes. For example, she got a hostile response last year when she lectured fourth-year medical students about drug industry influence on doctors.

"Physicians do not believe that they are affected by pharma," she told the AP. "(Doctors) all say the same thing: 'We are too smart to be bought by a slice of pizza.'"

Drug makers claim there is nothing underhanded about their sales representatives meeting with doctors to discuss the proper use, benefits and side effects of a new drug. And many doctors feel there is nothing wrong with having dinner with a drug company sales representative to talk about a new drug, the AP reported.

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