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Health Highlights: Oct. 7, 2006

U.S. Government Launches 'Largest Ever' Autism Research ProjectThird Death Reported From Spinach E. coli Outbreak Deal Limits Fat and Sugar in School Snacks Perchlorate Affects Women's Thyroid Function Scientists Spot Gene Linked to Hereditary Blindness Wal-Mart to Expand Cheap Generic Drug Program Across the U.S. Black Tea Eases Stress

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

U.S. Government Launches 'Largest Ever' Autism Research Project

The U.S. government is going to launch a major study into the causes of autism, a decision not universally accepted by some who whose children have the condition.

According to the Associated Press the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Oct. 6 that it would undertake its largest study to date -- involving 2,700 patients -- into what causes autism, which affects an estimated 300,000 children nationwide.

The CDC and five other organizations will conduct the study over a five year period, the A.P. reports. The goal is to find genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to autism.

But, the wire service reports, at least one parents' group whose children are autistic doesn't believe the CDC is the right agency to conduct the research. "We don't want the CDC to do anything. We don't trust them," the wire service quotes Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, as saying.

The primary reason is because the government has discounted the autism association's belief that vaccinations containing a mercury-based preservative are a potential cause. So far, no published research has indicated a cause-and-effect, although the preservative, thimerosal, no longer is used in childhood vaccinations.

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Third Death Reported From Spinach E. coli Outbreak

A third death has been confirmed from tainted spinach that caused an outbreak of illness across the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Oct. 6 that an elderly Nebraska woman died from complications caused by E. coli O157, the bacterial infection that health officials believe was spread nationwide through the consumption of fresh spinach distributed by a California processor.

The first death was an elderly woman in Wisconsin, and the second was a two-year-old Idaho boy, the CDC said. The agency announced it was also investigating another fatality in Maryland that may have been spinach-related.

In all, 26 states have reported cases of E. coli, with 102 hospitalizations.

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Deal Limits Fat and Sugar in School Snacks

Under a deal announced Friday, several major food companies will limit the amount of fat, sugar, and salt in snacks sold in U.S. schools as part of the effort to fight the childhood obesity epidemic.

The agreement -- which comes about five months after a deal to restrict soda sales in schools -- was signed by Kraft Foods, Inc., Mars Inc., Campbell Soup Co., Groupe Danone SA, and PepsiCo Inc. It was negotiated by the American Heart Association and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Associated Press reported.

The companies agreed to a set of fat, sugar, sodium and calorie guidelines for snacks sold in school vending machines, stores and snack bars. Under the guidelines, most snack foods will be limited to a maximum of 35 percent of calories from fat and 35 percent of sugar content by weight.

The guidelines are based on the recommendations of leading experts, the AP reported

"By working with schools and industry to implement these guidelines, we are helping to give parents peace of mind that their kids will be able to make healthier choices at school," said Dr. Raymond Gibbons, president of the American Heart Association.

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Perchlorate Affects Women's Thyroid Function

Exposure to perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, road flares and pyrotechnics, may cause reduced thyroid function in women, particularly those with low iodine intake, says a U.S. study. This effect was not found in men.

Perchlorate has been detected in milk, fruits, vegetables, grains, and drinking water across the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study included nearly 2,300 females and males ages 12 and older, United Press International reported.

The researchers analyzed blood and urine samples from the study participants and concluded that perchlorate exposure was a significant predictor or thyroid home levels in women with low iodine levels.

The thyroid gland uses iodine to produce hormones which help control energy, temperature, weight and mood. The thyroid is located at the front of the neck.

These findings indicate "that even small increases in perchlorate exposure may inhibit the thyroid's ability to absorb iodine from the bloodstream," the CDC said.

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Scientists Spot Gene Linked to Hereditary Blindness

Canadian and Dutch scientists have identified a gene, called CEP290, that's linked to the most common cause of blindness in newborns.

The researchers found a mutated form of the gene in 25 percent of patients with the hereditary disorder LCA (Leber congenital amaurosis), Canadian Press reported.

In children with LCA, gene defects cause cells in the eye to die or malfunction. LCA affects about one in 30,000 newborns.

The discovery of CEP290 may help in efforts to find ways to treat and prevent LCA. Previous research has identified other genes linked with the condition.

Early next year, scientists in Philadelphia plan to conduct the first human gene replacement therapy trial for vision. The trial will focus on another LCA gene, RPE65, CP reported.

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Wal-Mart to Expand Cheap Generic Drug Program Across the U.S.

Wal-Mart stores in most parts of the United States may soon offer $4 prescriptions for some generic drugs, company officials said.

The announcement was made as the world's largest retailer went state-wide with a low-cost generic drug test program that began last month in Tampa, Fla., the Associated Press reported.

Customer demand in Florida convinced Wal-Mart to accelerate national plans to offer low-cost generic drugs.

"I would expect that we would be in most of the U.S. this year. That's the plan," Bill Simon, executive vice president of Wal-Mart's professional services division, told the AP.

Wal-Mart said the program is an effort to help working Americans save costs on health care. Critics say it's just an attempt to draw in customers and grab a larger share of U.S. drug sales.

"Generics are not very expensive in the first place. It's a good thing to make generic drugs cheaper, but that isn't where most of the big costs are," Gary Claxton, a vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyzes health-care issues, told the AP.

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Black Tea Eases Stress

Black tea eases stress by lowering blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says a British study in the journal Psychopharmacology.

The six-week study of 75 people found that those who drank black tea were able to de-stress more quickly than those who drank a caffeinated tea substitute, BBC News reported.

The participants were assigned challenging tasks while their cortisol, blood pressure, blood platelet, and self-rated levels of stress were measured by the researchers. During these tasks, both groups of study participants experienced large increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and self-rated levels of stress.

However, 50 minutes after the stressful tasks, cortisol levels dropped by an average of 47 percent among those who drank black tea.

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