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Health Highlights: Oct. 2, 2007

Rattles Pose Choking Hazard EBV Vaccine May Spur Immune System to Attack Cancer More Accidents at U.S. Labs Handling Deadly Substances No Link Between Bone-Building Drugs, Irregular Heart Rhythms: FDA Uric Acid May Boost Mini-Stroke Risk Group Wants More Money for Breast/Cervical Cancer Screening

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

Rattles Pose Choking Hazard

A recall of about 82,000 Chinese-made rattles that can break open and release small beads that pose a choking hazard to young children was announced Tuesday by the Target chain of department stores. There have been no reported injuries.

The Plush Boy Rattles were sold at Target stores across the United States from March 2007 through May 2007 for about $1. The rattles were sold in three styles: a white baseball with red stitching; a brown football with white stitching; and an orange basketball with black stitching, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

A tag sewn into the rattles contains the following information: Reg. No. PA5706(CN), Distributed by Double Nice Co LTd. 3f-2 No. 325, Wu Chuan Road, Taichung, Taiwan, Made in China.

Consumers with these rattle should take them away from children and return them to a Target store for a full refund. For more information, contact Target at 1-800-440-0680.


EBV Vaccine May Spur Immune System to Attack Cancer

It may be possible to use a vaccine for Epstein Barr virus (EBV) -- a widespread herpes virus -- to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells, says a study presented at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in the U.K.

EBV usually causes no health problems, but the virus is associated with certain kinds of cancer, including lymphomas and naso-pharyngeal carcinoma. In these cases, the cells in the tumors are infected with EBV, BBC News reported.

Researchers found that the vaccine produced heightened immune response to cancer cells infected with EBV, BBC News reported. The vaccine used in the study targets two proteins (EBNA1 and LMP2) that are present in cancer cells infected with EBV.

"The initial results of these vaccinations are promising. It seems that the vaccine is able to encourage the body's immune response to the proteins present in the tumor," said study author Dr. Neil Steven. "The next stage is to assess how effective this process can be in attacking tumors."


More Accidents at U.S. Labs Handling Deadly Substances

Since 2003, there have been more than 100 accidents and shipping errors involving U.S. labs that handle the world's most dangerous germs and toxins, according to an Associated Press review of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators.

Workers who suffered skin cuts, needle sticks, and bites or scratches by infected animals were among the documented incidents involving bird flu virus, anthrax, and plague-causing bacteria and other dangerous substances at 44 labs in 24 states. No one died and officials said the public was never at risk in any of these cases.

The AP found a steady increase in the number of such incidents. For example, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments between January and August 2007, nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

Since 2004, the number of labs approved by the federal government to handle the deadliest substances has nearly doubled to 409. Federal regulators conduct routine inspections of the labs about once every three years. However, interim inspections are done when a lab reports an accident.

The lab incidents are being examined by the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which will hold a hearing Thursday, the AP reported.

"It may be only a matter of time before our nation has a public health incident with potentially catastrophic results," said subcommittee chairman Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich).


No Link Between Bone-Building Drugs, Irregular Heart Rhythms: FDA

There is no statistically significant evidence of a link between the popular bone-building drugs Reclast and Fosamax and irregular heart rhythms in older women, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Doctors and patients should continue using the osteoporosis treatments as usual, said the FDA, which launched a safety review in May after the publication of medical journal studies that found that women using the drugs had higher rates of irregular heart beats than women taking a placebo, the Associated Press reported.

On its Web site, the FDA said it could take another year to complete the safety review of Reclast and Fosamax but, so far, the agency has found no causal relationship between the drugs and heart problems.

In the case of Reclast, the FDA review found that women taking the drug didn't develop heart spasms until more than a month after taking it, suggesting the drug was not the cause of the problem, the AP reported.

Reclast is made by Norvartis AG and Fosamax is made by Merck & Co.


Uric Acid May Boost Mini-Stroke Risk

High levels of uric acid -- which causes gout -- may increase the risk of mini-strokes that can cause mental decline in older adults, says a Johns Hopkins University study in the journal Neurology.

Researchers found that people over age 60 with elevated uric acid levels had up to five times more volume of brain areas showing evidence of mini-stroke than those with average or low uric acid levels, BBC News reported.

Previously, the same team found an association between elevated uric acid levels and poor performance on tests of memory and speed of thought.

"Having found that uric acid levels are linked to both mild cognitive decline and mini-strokes we need to learn how these are related," said lead researcher Dr. David Schretlen.


Group Wants More Money for Breast/Cervical Cancer Screening

Due to continued inadequate funding, only one in five eligible women receives screening under the U.S. National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection and Prevention Program (NBCCEDP).

That's the conclusion of a report released Monday by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).

Six months ago, President Bush signed a bill reauthorizing the program and raising the funding to $275 million over five years. But the ACS CAN -- a nonprofit advocacy organization -- wants federal lawmakers to immediately boost funding for the program from its current $202 million to $250 million. That increase would provide screening and any necessary treatment to 130,000 additional women.

The report noted that in many parts of the United States, the program has difficulty maintaining services for the women it currently serves.

"We have scientific evidence that links insurance status to state of cancer diagnosis, with uninsured women twice as likely to have a worse outcome. Women who need this program are delaying critical screenings and treatments because the necessary resources haven't been made available," ACS CAN President Daniel E. Smith said in a prepared statement.

"What if the eligible women who aren't being served by this program included your mother, your sister, your daughter or your friend? Years of insufficient funding for the NBCCEDP not only mean that four out of five eligible women will continue to go unserved, but with rising health care costs, even those served today may not be able to access services in the future. This is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- it's time for Congress and the President to provide more funding," Smith said.


Alzheimer's Drug May Combat Breast Cancer Recurrence

An Alzheimer's disease drug shows promise as a treatment to prevent breast cancer recurrence, according to research presented at the (U.K.) National Cancer Research Institute conference in Birmingham, BBC News reported.

The drug, a gamma secretase inhibitor, attacks the Notch gene that stimulates cancer cells. In about one third of women successfully treated for breast cancer, the disease recurs because some cancer cells survive treatment.

"Our work has revealed the importance of several pathways not previously known to regulate stem cell survival and self-renewal, which is tremendously exciting," said team leader Dr. Robert Clarke of the University of Manchester.

Since the drug has already undergone health and safety checks for its use in Alzheimer's patients, Clarke said it may be possible to speed up a clinical trial designed to assess the drug's effectiveness against breast cancer recurrence, BBC News reported.


U.S. Meat Supply 'Safest in World,' Says Government Official

In an effort to ease consumers' fears in the wake of a recall of 21.7 million pounds of ground beef that may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Monday that the country's meat supply is "the safest in the world," the Associated Press reported.

The recall was announced after more than a dozen people in eight states became ill and it was confirmed that several got E. coli from ground beef processed by Topps Meat Co. in New Jersey. Other cases are still under investigation.

Government officials discovered inadequate E. coli safety measures at the Topps plant but the federal government is on top of the problem, Dr. Richard Raymond, undersecretary of food safety, said in an interview on CBS's The Early Show.

"I think the American meat supply is the safest in the world," Raymond said. "A recall like this does show that we are on the job, we are doing our inspections, our investigation, and we respond when we find problems to make sure that the supply is safe."

He reminded consumers to take proper precautions when handling raw meat at home, the AP reported, such as: washing hands; using a separate cutting board to prepare meat; cooking meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; and using a food thermometer to verify the meat's temperature.


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