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Health Highlights: Sept. 23, 2007

Outbreaks of Bluetongue, Foot-and-Mouth Threaten U.K. Livestock Private Takeover Can Mean Poorer Care at U.S. Nursing Homes Experimental AIDS Vaccine Fails Key Test Researchers ID Hundreds of Genes Linked to Infertility FDA Urged to Ease Patient Restrictions for Heart Ablation Trials Simplicity Recalls Cribs Linked to Deaths of 3 Babies

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

Outbreaks of Bluetongue, Foot-and-Mouth Threaten U.K. Livestock

British authorities on Saturday said they have identified the first case of the viral disease bluetongue in livestock, even as they extend the "protection zone" for an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in another locale, Bloomberg news reported.

Bluetongue, which does not affect humans, was found in a cow near Ipswich, Suffolk, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on its Web site. The disease has also popped up recently in livestock in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

U.K. authorities have also expanded by an additional 3 kilometers the protection zone around a farm near Petersfield in Hampshire, the site of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, Bloomberg said. A sixth outbreak of the cattle illness has been confirmed in Surrey, southern England. Cattle in that outbreak, first spotted Sept. 21, have been slaughtered, officials said.

Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth in British cattle were first identified in August, and the European Commission has halted imports of British animals or animal products vulnerable to foot-and-mouth disease till at least Oct. 15, labeling the U.K. a "high-risk" area.

A 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease cost the U.K. economy over $20 billion and resulted in the slaughter of thousands of animals.


Private Takeover Can Mean Poorer Care at U.S. Nursing Homes

A survey of complaints against more than 16,000 U.S. nursing homes finds that care often deteriorates significantly after homes are acquired by large private investment firms, The New York Times reports.

The Times compared the number of complaints received against 1,200 nursing homes acquired by these for-profit firms against those of 14,000 other nursing homes.

They report that, on average, residents of these homes are now much worse off in terms of depression, loss of mobility, and loss of ability to dress and bathe themselves than before the takeover, according to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Much of that shortfall in care is linked to drastic cuts in nursing and other staff in the months after an investment firm takes over the home, the Times reported. At Tampa, Fla.'s Habana Health Care Center, for example, the 150-bed home lost half its nursing staff within months of being acquired by Formation Properties I, a private investment fund.

Over the next 3 years, 15 Habana residents died from what suing family members claim was negligent care -- even as profits from the nursing home rose. "They've created a hellhole," plaintiff Vivian Hewitt told the Times. She sued Habana after her mother died from the feces-linked infection of a large bedsore.

"The first thing owners do is lay off nurses and other staff that are essential to keeping patients safe," noted Charlene Harrington, a University of California, San Francisco professor whose work focuses on nursing homes. "Chains have made a lot of money by cutting nurses, but it's at the cost of human lives," she told the newspaper.

But Arnold Whitman, a principal with Formation, said companies like his have rescued many failing nursing homes from the brink of bankruptcy, brought on by what he sees as out-of-control litigation.

"Lawyers were convincing nursing home residents to sue over almost anything," he told the Times. "We should be recognized for supporting this industry when almost everyone else was running away."


Experimental AIDS Vaccine Fails Key Test

A trial of a vaccine designed to control AIDS has been halted after numerous participants became infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

Drug maker Merck & Co. said Friday that it was stopping enrollment and vaccination of volunteers taking part in the international study, which was partly funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Merck told the Associated Press that 24 of 741 volunteers who got the vaccine in one part of the trial eventually became infected with HIV. In a comparison group of volunteers who got dummy shots, 21 of 762 participants also became infected with HIV.

The volunteers were HIV-free at the start of the trial. But they were at high risk for getting HIV. Most were homosexual men or female sex workers. They were all repeatedly counseled about how to reduce their risk of HIV infections, including use of condoms, according to Merck, the AP said.

The Merck vaccine was the first major test of a new strategy to prevent HIV infection. Initial trials to develop a vaccine tried to stimulate antibodies against the virus, but that didn't work.

The new approach -- which is also being tried by other researchers -- seeks to prod the body to produce more of key immune system cells called killer T-cells, the news service said.


Researchers ID Hundreds of Genes Linked to Infertility

U.S. researchers say they've identified nearly 350 genes linked to female fertility, a finding that could lead to greater study of the poorly understood field of infertility.

"This study gives us a way to begin to understand the causes of female infertility," said Dr. Diego Castrillon, assistant professor of pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas. "It gives us a much more complete list of candidate genes to explore. Before, we didnt even know where to look."

The new study was done with mice, but "at the molecular level, ovarian biology is very similar in mice and humans," said Castrillon, senior author of the paper that is published in the September issue of the journal Genetics.

The findings might one day allow clinicians to test whether an infertile woman has problems with a specific gene, allowing for improved diagnostic tests and individualized therapy, said Castrillon, a specialist in the diagnosis of infertility and other diseases of women.

About 13 percent of women suffer from infertility, with the most common cause being dysfunction of the ovary. Researchers suspected genetic links in many cases, he said.


FDA Urged to Ease Patient Restrictions for Heart Ablation Trials

Experts say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should ease restrictions on which patients with a common heart condition called atrial fibrillation can be enrolled in clinical trials of devices used to provide a treatment called ablation, The New York Times reported.

That was one of the suggestions offered Thursday by a panel of experts at a daylong meeting on clinical trials for treatments of atrial fibrillation, a nonfatal but distressing condition in which electrical shortcircuits in the upper chambers of the heart cause rapid, erratic contraction. The condition affects about 2.2 million Americans.

Ablation involves burning or freezing certain areas of the atrial muscle to either eliminate the source of the irregular pulses or to block the pathways they travel. This common method of treatment is used when drug therapy fails or causes intolerable side effects, the Times reported.

"We have to be more flexible," Dr. Bram Zuckerman, director of the FDA's cardiovascular devices division, said in response to the expert panel's remarks about rapidly evolving technology for treating atrial fibrillation.


Simplicity Recalls Cribs Linked to Deaths of 3 Babies

About one million Chinese-made cribs have been voluntarily recalled by Simplicity Inc. because problems with the drop rail can create a dangerous gap that poses a risk of suffocation and entrapment. The cribs have been linked to the deaths of at least three children in the United States, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission said Friday.

The three babies -- ages 6 months, 9 months, and 1 year -- died in cribs where the drop rail was installed upside down due to poor hardware and crib design, the Chicago Tribune reported. The CPSC said it's also aware of seven infant entrapments and 55 incidents in these cribs.

The recalled Simplicity crib models include: Aspen 3 in 1; Aspen 4 in 1; Nursery-in-a Box; Crib N Changer Combo; and the Chelsea and Pooh 4 in 1. The recall also includes these Simplicity cribs sold with the Graco logo: Aspen 3 in 1; Ultra 3 in 1; Ultra 4 in 1; Ultra 5 in 1; Whitney; and the Trio.

This is the largest crib recall since the CPSC was created in the 1970s, the Tribune reported. For more information, contact Simplicity toll-free at (888) 593-9274.


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