Health Highlights: Oct. 4, 2006

U.S. Searches Spinach-Packaging Companies in E. coli Probe Breast-feeding Doesn't Improve Infant IQ Scientists Study Link Between Meat and Bacterial Infection Fujitsu Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries U.S. Stops Confiscating Mail-Order Drugs From Canada Millions of Medicare/Medicaid Health Records Vulnerable: Report

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

U.S. Searches Spinach-Packaging Companies in E. coli Probe

U.S. law enforcement and health officials searched two spinach-packaging companies in California on Wednesday for evidence in the nationwide E. coli outbreak that sickened 192 people.

Agents from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration, armed with warrants, searched the San Juan Bautista plant of Natural Selection Foods and a Growers Express plant in Salinas to determine whether they followed food safety procedures, the Associated Press reported.

Natural Selection, which packages spinach sold under 34 brand names and supplies spinach to other food processors, was implicated in the E. coli outbreak after 11 bags of Dole brand baby spinach tested positive for the same bacteria strain found in people sickened after eating the vegetable.

Meanwhile, investigators have found E. coli bacteria in eight samples of cattle feces collected near two California farms that may have been the source of contaminated spinach that's killed at least one person and sickened 193 people in the United States and Canada.

The samples tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, but it will be several more days before investigators know whether this particularly toxic strain of E. coli in the cattle feces matches the strain of E. coli found in the contaminated spinach, the Washington Post reported.

The two farms where the cattle feces samples were collected are among the nine farms in California's Salinas Valley that have been identified as the potential source of the contaminated spinach. Hundreds of plant, water, soil and animal waste samples collected from the nine farms are still being analyzed.

E. coli is normally found in the digestive systems of cattle and other warm-blooded animals, including humans. E. coli in pastures could get into irrigation water or runoff and contaminate nearby spinach fields, California food safety official Kevin Reilly told the Post.


Breast-feeding Doesn't Improve Infant IQ

Breast-feeding does not increase a baby's IQ, according to a British study that focused on a question that's been debated since 1929, when a link between breast-feeding and IQ was first identified.

The new study of more than 5,000 children and 3,000 mothers concluded that breastfed children tend to be smarter due to their mothers' influence, not because of breast-feeding itself, BBC News reported.

Mothers who breast-feed tend to be more intelligent, more highly educated, and more likely to provide a stimulating home environment than other mothers, said the study, published in the British Medical Journal.

The study was conducted by researchers at the U.K. Medical Research Council and the University of Edinburgh, BBC News reported.


Scientists Study Link Between Meat and Bacterial Infection

U.S. and Canadian scientists are studying whether people can become infected by the bacterium Clostridium difficile -- which causes severe diarrhea -- by eating meat.

The scientists have found evidence of C. difficile infection in food animals and even in meat in grocery stores, CBC News reported.

The finding that the bacterium has been found in grocery-store meat is contained in a Canadian study that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

However, it's still not clear whether humans can become infected and develop C. difficile-related illness by eating meat that contains the bacterium, CBC News reported.

Currently, C. difficile is regarded as a hospital-acquired infection linked to overuse of antibiotics. It's believed that antibiotics disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the human gut, which enables C. difficile to take hold and flourish.

But more and more cases of C. difficile-related illness are being identified in people who haven't been hospitalized. This has led scientists to look at the food supply as a possible source of infection, CBC News reported.


Fujitsu Recalls Sony Laptop Batteries

Electronics maker Fujitsu Ltd. said Wednesday that it's recalling 287,000 Sony batteries used in 10 models of the company's laptops sold overseas and 17 models sold in Japan.

This is the latest episode in a huge worldwide recall involving laptop batteries made by Sony Corp. Nearly every major laptop maker has had to recall Sony-made lithium-ion batteries, which can overheat and catch fire, the Associated Press reported.

The largest recalls involve Dell Inc. (4.2 million batteries) and Apple Computer Inc. (1.8 million batteries).

The lithium-ion batteries can short-circuit because shards of metal were left in their cells when they were manufactured in Japan, the AP reported.


U.S. Stops Confiscating Mail-Order Drugs From Canada

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said this week that it will stop confiscating discount mail-order drugs from Canada and, instead, conduct random sampling to find counterfeit and unsafe drugs.

The move by the department, which operates the Custom and Border Protection agency, removes a major obstacle for Americans who buy cheaper drugs from Canada, the Los Angeles Times reported.

So far this year, the U.S. government had been confiscating as many as 20 percent of discount drug shipments mailed from Canada and other countries. The confiscation policy began last November, about the same time that enrollment for the new U.S. Medicare drug plan began.

The U.S. government said it implemented the policy due to concerns about the safety of drugs from other countries. However, consumer advocates and others charged that the move was an attempt to limit competition in the U.S. pharmaceutical market and to force seniors to sign up for the new Medicare drug plan, the Times reported.

The change in policy "could have a huge impact," said Jodi Reid, director of the California Alliance for Retired Americans.

"People were concerned that they might not get their drugs because they were getting seized. This does open that option again for people who were trying to figure out how to get their medications to manage their health at a price they can afford," Reid told the Times.


Millions of Medicare/Medicaid Health Records Vulnerable: Report

The medical and personal records of millions of elderly, disabled and poor Americans are vulnerable to unauthorized disclosure due to security problems in a computer system used by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), federal investigators said Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said it identified 47 security weaknesses in a privately-owned and operated computer network used by CMS to send and receive bills and to communicate with healthcare providers, the Associated Press reported.

CMS, which oversees healthcare programs used by about 25 percent of Americans, does not always ensure its security policies and standards are followed by the private contractor that operates the computer network.

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