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Health Highlights: Oct. 27, 2002

FDA OK's New Cholesterol Medication School Lunch Programs Can Use Irradiated Meat 'Battered Women' Law Wins Convicted Murderer Her Freedom Separated Twins Heading for Home Thousands of Birds in Calif. Killed to Stop Deadly Virus CDC Issues New Hand Hygiene Guidelines for Hospitals

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

FDA OK's New Cholesterol Medication

Pharmaceutical giants Merck and Schering-Plough have won approval for their much-anticipated cholesterol-lowering medication, Zetia, CBS reports.

Following a 10-month review, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Zetia (ezetimibe), the first in a new class of cholesterol-lowering agents that inhibit the intestinal absorption of cholesterol.

Dr. H. Bryan Brewer, chief of the molecular disease branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, called Zetia "the first breakthrough to treat cholesterol since statins were introduced 15 years ago," according to a statement by the two companies.

Zetia is a once-a-day prescription tablet and can be taken with statins, which work in the liver, the companies' statement said.


Gov't Says School Lunch Programs Can Use Irradiated Meat

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given the go-ahead for schoolchildren in the national lunch program to eat meat that has been sterilized through irradiation.

Irradiated meat has been sold to the public since 1999, but the treated foods were prohibited in the federal school lunch program, which serves 25 million children, the Associated Press reports. Schools will now be able to purchase irradiated meat by the end of the year, although the use will be optional, USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison says.

Irradiation is a technology that rids food of parasites and bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, by exposing it to low levels of gamma rays or electrons. Meat companies want the USDA to start a pilot program for purchasing irradiated ground beef for school lunches.

Supporters of irradiation say the process is safe and helps reduce the number of foodborne illnesses; opponents argue it destroys vitamins and nutrients and can develop chemicals that are linked to birth defects and cancer.


'Battered Women' Law Wins Convicted Murderer Her Freedom

An abused woman who served more than 17 years in prison for killing her husband has been released by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who overturned her murder conviction after finding that her 1985 trial outcome might have been different if evidence of battered women's syndrome had been allowed in her defense.

Marva Wallace, 44, a mother of two, is believed to be the first inmate released under a new California law that allows inmates to file habeas corpus petitions in cases in which evidence of battered women's syndrome was not permitted at trial, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Judge David S. Wesley, who overturned the murder conviction, said Wallace had clearly been a battered woman and had been convicted at a time when very little was known about domestic violence. Wallace, a high school graduate who had no previous criminal record, had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in state prison. She could still face a new trial and is due back in court tomorrow.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Gray Davis had denied Wallace parole, reversing a recommendation of the state Board of Prison Terms by saying he had determined that her release "would create too great a risk of public safety." So far this year, Davis has blocked the parole of eight such women in addition to Wallace; decisions on three more cases are pending, the Times reports.


Separated Twins Heading for Home

The Guatemalan twin girls who were born joined at the head and separated in a complex, 23-hour surgery may soon return home following more than two months of recovery.

Maria de Jesus and Maria Teresa Quiej Alvarez could leave as early as Tuesday, doctors at Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles, say. A medical team, including a pediatrician, three nurses and a physical therapist, will accompany the girls and their parents on the five-hour flight, the Associated Press reports.

Doctors remain optimistic the twins will fully recover and lead normal lives. The UCLA staff has worked with the girls to help them develop their motor skills. Although they are 15 months old, their motor skills resemble those of a 9- or 10-month-old, doctors said.

The departure date depends on Maria de Jesus' recovery from a recent surgery to clean and close her scalp incisions, UCLA spokeswoman Elaine Schmidt says. Maria Teresa, whose recovery lagged because of follow-up surgeries to the massive Aug. 6 operation, has shown signs of improvement. She kicks her legs when placed on her belly and looks at visitors when they speak to her, according to a statement from UCLA.


Thousands of Birds in Calif. Killed to Stop Deadly Virus

More than 8,000 birds in Southern California, including thousands of chickens, dozens of household pet birds, several peacocks and four ostriches, have been killed as state and federal agriculture officials try to stem a month-old outbreak of a deadly bird virus known as exotic Newcastle disease.

The New York Times reports that the devastating infection has not spread to California's commercial poultry operations, most of which are in Northern California. But Canada, Taiwan, Poland and South Korea have already banned imports of most poultry products from the state, and the European Union has imposed an embargo on live poultry, hatching eggs and fresh meat from poultry and game birds from the United States until the infection is brought under control.

An emergency Newcastle disease task force, working out of a military training base in Los Alamitos, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, has sent 171 officials to inspect hundreds of homes and small farms in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties where the infection is feared to have spread.

California's chief veterinarian, Dr. Richard E. Breitmeyer, says he had seen hopeful signs in recent days that the spread was slowing. The disease, first spotted in late September in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, devastated California's poultry industry in the early 1970's, when 12 million birds were destroyed.


CDC Issues New Hand Hygiene Rules for Hospitals

The U.S. government is urging doctors and nurses to forgo soap-and-water hand washing rituals in favor of fast-drying alcohol solutions, reports the Associated Press.

Hospital-spread viruses and bacteria infect roughly 2 million people every year and kill about 90,000. Medical personnel frequently skip hand-washing routines between patients because the procedure can take up to a full minute. It's believed the new guidelines, issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will significantly reduce the problem. Many hospitals have already made the change and studies suggest infection rates can be cut in half, according to the AP.

The alcohol-based gels kill more germs than the soap and water and are more user-friendly. Nurses can clip the containers to their uniforms, squirt a blob onto their hands and disinfect them as they move from one patient to the next. The CDC estimates this will save one hour in an eight-hour intensive care shift.

While all nurses are expected to adopt this practice, surgeons can choose between the gels or the customary antimicrobial soap.

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