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Health Highlights: Nov. 19, 2002

Hepatitis C Infects 81 at Nebraska Clinic Breast Cancer Survivors Bare Their Chests Stents Outdo Surgery for Blocked Neck Arteries Stem Cells Modified to Produce Insulin Feds Tighten Meat Plant Oversight FDA Approves Strep Test for Pregnant Women

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

Hepatitis C Infects 81 at Nebraska Clinic

Eighty-one patients have contracted hepatitis C after being treated at a Nebraska cancer clinic.

The clinic has advised 612 patients who'd sought treatment between March 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2001, to get tested for hepatitis C, a viral infection of the liver and the most common blood-borne infection in the United States, the Associated Press reports.

Doctors suspect the disease was introduced to the clinic by one of the 612 patients who was already infected with the virus.

State health officials have yet to determine how the disease spread among the patients, but there have been reports that a contaminated vial may have been used for several patients.

"There's no indication of intentionality here," said Dr. Tom Safranek, a state epidemiologist.

People with hepatitis C can remain without symptoms for decades. Eventually, it can lead to chronic liver diseases such as cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure.

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Breast Cancer Survivors Bare Their Chests

A group of breast cancer survivors from Seattle, Wash., are the pin-ups for a 2003 fund-raising calendar in which they bare their tops.

The 12 women -- each of whom has had either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy -- range in age from 35 to 70, and are volunteers for an organization called the Angel Care Breast Cancer Center, CBS News reports.

Besides being a fund-raiser, the project serves as a "celebration of their new bodies," as well as an inspiration to other women who've been disfigured by the disease.

Diana Beaumont, the calendar's Miss July, said, "One woman didn't have the strength to look at her body. And she hadn't seen herself in a year. We need to do something to give these women the strength to go on."

The calendar is called "No Ordinary Angels."

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Stents Outdo Surgery for Blocked Neck Arteries

Interventional procedures used to open blocked neck arteries may be more effective and safer than surgery.

In a study involving 307 patients whose carotid arteries were at least 50 percent blocked, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation used tiny flexible mesh tubes, called stents, to unclog the arteries of 156 of the participants. The remaining 151 underwent standard surgery, United Press International reports.

When people undergo any procedure involving their carotid arteries, they risk having a stroke, a heart attack or dying. In this study, 12.6 percent of the surgical patients suffered one of these events, while only 5.8 percent of the stent recipients experienced similar consequences.

Dr. Jay Yadav, the lead researcher, said the results are early indicators that interventional procedures for narrowed neck arteries may be superior to surgery. Doctors perform about 200,000 surgical repairs of carotid arteries every year. "About 50,000 of those procedures could benefit from stenting instead," Yaday told UPI.

The research was presented at the annual scientific session of the American Heart Association in Chicago.

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Stem Cells Modified to Produce Insulin

Stanford University researchers have cultured embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing tissue in diabetic mice, the California scientists report in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The technique is not nearly ready for testing in people, the researchers caution, though its success in keeping diabetic mice alive may be an important new step in ultimately treating diabetes in humans.

Certain forms of diabetes are caused by the death or abnormal production of "beta" cells that make insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in a person's blood. Researchers hope to eventually learn how to create the beta cells from stem cells, replacing those that have died or ceased to function properly.

To prove that the grafts of the insulin-producing tissue had kept the mice alive, the scientists removed the grafts after three weeks. All of the mice soon died from too much sugar in their bloodstreams, the Associated Press reports.

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Feds Tighten Meat Plant Oversight

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is warning meat-producing plants that they had better start regular testing of their facilities for food-borne germs or risk having the federal government do it for them.

The directive -- aimed at plants that produce high- or medium-risk deli meats and hot dogs -- comes in response to a recent listeria monocytogenes outbreak in the Northeast, which resulted in the deaths of seven people and the sickening of 52 others. The plants will be required to share the results of their testing with the government, the Agriculture Department said in a press release.

Consumption of food contaminated with the bacterium can cause listeriosis, which can have flu-like symptoms including high fever, severe headache and nausea. Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

The directive will take effect Dec. 9, the department says. It has invited public comment on the proposal until Dec. 2.

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FDA Approves Strep B Test for Pregnant Women

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new test that can diagnose Group B Streptococcus in pregnant women in as little as one hour.

The IDI-Strep B test, made by Infectio Diagnostic Inc of Quebec, Canada, was shown to detect 94 percent of cases of Group B strep among 802 pregnant women who participated in company-sponsored clinical trials in the United States and Canada.

Its one-hour results contrast to those of the standard method of culture testing, which take 18 to 48 hours. A pregnant woman is typically screened for Group B strep two to four weeks before labor begins. If the results are positive, she is normally given four hours of antibiotic treatment during labor.

While this standard method has reduced the incidence of Group B strep by 70 percent during the past decade, it must be performed well in advance of when labor begins.

Group B strep is a major cause of serious illness and death among America's newborns when transmitted to the infant during birth. Some 10 percent to 30 percent of pregnant women are infected, the FDA says.

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