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Health Highlights: Nov. 3, 2002

Gene Finding Helps Explain Grave's Disease Listeria Fear Forces Recall of 100 Tons of Meat Probes Find Fatal Abuse in State Agencies U.S. To Spend More on Gulf War Illnesses Fla. Stands Alone in Bioterrorism Readiness Company Promoted Unapproved Uses of Drug

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

Gene Finding Helps Explain Grave's Disease

Scientists say they have learned how the immune systems of people with Grave's disease attacks their thyroid glands. They say the genetic findings may lead the way both to new treatments for the condition and to a better understanding of other autoimmune disorders like diabetes.

Autoimmune diseases are those in which the body's immune system turns on its host, according to the BBC.

British scientists, using molecular technology, compared the genes of people with Grave's disease to those without the condition. They found that some genes that programmed for cell death were mistakenly turned on in people with Grave's disease, but not in those without it, the BBC reports.

In this case, the programmed cell death controls the size of the thyroid gland. People with Grave's disease -- it's more common in women -- experience swelling around the thyroid gland and the eyes. It's treated with drugs and, sometimes, surgery.


Listeria Fear Forces Recall of 100 Tons of Meat

A New Jersey company is recalling 200,000 pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey after tests found it contained a strain of listeria matching that which caused an outbreak in the Northeast.

The Jack Lambersky Poultry Company Inc. of Camden is also suspending operations during the investigation, the Associated Press reports.

The Agriculture Department found a strain of listeria that matches one that has killed seven people and made another 50 ill, the AP reports.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that another meat processing company, also tied to the listeria outbreak, had been cited dozens of times in the months leading up to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

An Inquirer investigation found that Wampler Foods had been accused of various food safety violations -- from leaky pipes to mold on equipment to the presence of cockroaches -- since January. Last month, after the U.S. government said Wampler was the likely source of the outbreak, Wampler announced the recall of 27.5 million pounds of poultry products.


Probes Find Fatal Abuse in State Agencies

Two newspaper investigations have tied many deaths to neglect and abuse by state agencies in Florida and New Jersey.

The Miami Herald reports that at least 37 children have died in the last five years as a result of what it called a "breakdown" by the state's Department of Children and Families.

In most cases, the department had been warned that the children were at risk of being injured, usually by family members, but took no action, the Herald reports.

Meanwhile, the Star-Ledger of Newark reports that New Jersey's seven institutions for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled are also neglecting the people under their care.

In one recent case, a man was found dead an hour after a worker reported having checked on him and noted that he was fine. In fact, the patient had been dead several hours, the Star-Ledger reports. The paper discovered that the rate of major injuries has risen 50 percent at the institutions -- some at the hands of employees -- even though the places take care of fewer people.


U.S. To Spend More on Gulf War Illnesses

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it plans to significantly increase the amount of money it spends on research into Gulf War illnesses.

The department plans to spend $20 million in 2004, more than twice as much as it has allocated in recent years, according to the Associated Press.

The AP quotes a leader of veterans groups as saying that the increase marks a change in attitude on the VA's part, since veterans have had to fight "tooth and nail" to convince the government that Gulf War illness is more than just stress.

Thousands of Gulf War vets have reported suffering a variety of ailments since coming home.


Fla. Stands Alone in Bioterrorism Readiness

Florida is the only place in the U.S. that is ready to receive and distribute emergency supplies from the federal government in the event of a bioterrorism attack, the Associated Press reports.

States, cities, and territories were supposed to send their plans to handle a germ attack to Washington, but the AP says that most haven't come with them. They were supposed to answer where they would set up 500 emergency beds, how they would distribute a stockpile of medicine, and how they would isolate highly contagious patients. The deadline was Friday.

The federal government is geared to send 50 tons of emergency medicine within 12 hours. But from there, the responsibility lies with the state and local governments to distribute the supplies and find the people to do it.


Company Promoted Unapproved Uses of Drug

Parke-Davis promoted its epilepsy drug Neurotonin to doctors for unapproved uses rather than spend years and many millions of dollars to get a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to court documents.

Internal memos estimated that the company could save as much as $150 million by going directly to doctors rather than seek FDA approval, according to the Boston Globe.

The paper says the drug giant, which has since been bought out by Pfizer, wanted to urge doctors to prescribe Neurotonin for bipolar disorder, social phobias, panic disorder, and neuropathic pain. The FDA hasn't approved the drug for any of these ailments. Although doctors commonly prescribe drugs for illnesses other than for that which the drugs were approved -- a practice called "off-label" prescribing -- companies are forbidden from promoting them for those purposes.

The memos were released as part of a trial in which a whistleblower accuses Parke-Davis of illegally promoting the drug in the 1990s.

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