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Health Highlights: Sept. 29, 2007

Frozen Beef Patty Recall Widened to 21 Million Pounds Brain-Eating Amoeba Linked to 6 Deaths Teens Who Work More Likely to Smoke: Study Most Medicare Beneficiaries Can Get Lower Drug Premiums in 2008 New York Smoking Ban Linked to Decline in Heart Attacks Breath Could Track Diabetics' Blood Sugar

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

Frozen Beef Patty Recall Widened to 21 Million Pounds

A New Jersey meat distributor on Saturday widened by millions its recall of frozen beef patties potentially contaminated with e. coli, after U.S. health inspectors found inadequate safety measures at its plant.

The Topps Meat. Co., based in Elizabeth, said it was now recalling 21.7 million pounds of ground beef products, up from 332,000 pounds of ground beef initially recalled on Sept. 25, the Associated Press reported.

The initial recall resulted after at least six people in New York State became ill, and three were hospitalized. Investigators now think 25 people may have been sickened in eight states.

Health officials said cases were found in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And the company said the recalled products had been distributed to retail grocery stores and food service institutions throughout the United States.

The recall represents all Topps products with either a "sell by date" or "best if used by date" between Sept. 25, 2007 and Sept. 25, 2008, which can be found on the back panel of the packages.

In addition, all the recalled products have a USDA establishment number of EST 9748, also located on the back panel of the package and/or in the USDA legend.

The move comes after federal inspectors on Friday said they suspended the grinding of raw products after finding inadequate safety measures at the Topps plant. The USDA has declined to detail the inadequate safety measures, but said New York health officials have found additional Topps products tainted with the bacteria, the AP reported.

Geoffrey Livermore, Topps' operations vice president, said the company was continuing to work with the USDA, state health departments, retailers and distributors and has augmented its procedures with microbiologists and food safety experts.

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Brain-Eating Amoeba Linked to 6 Deaths

An amoeba that typically lives in lakes and enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain has been linked to six deaths in the United States this year, federal health officials report.

Even though encounters with the single-celled organism are rare, it has killed six boys and young men this year. The increase in cases has health officials concerned, with predictions of more cases in the future, the Associated Press reported.

"This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better," Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the news service. "In future decades, as temperatures rise, we'd expect to see more cases."

According to the CDC, the amoeba is called Naegleria fowleri, and it killed 23 people in the United States from 1995 to 2004. But health officials have noticed a rise in cases this year, with three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. The CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since the microscopic bug's discovery in Australia in the 1960s, the AP said.

Though infections tend to be found in southern states, Naegleria lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, subsisting off algae and bacteria in the sediment. People become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom, Beach said.

Symptoms of infection include a stiff neck, headaches and fever. In the later stages, victims will show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, he said.

Once infected, most people have little chance of survival, the AP said.

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Teens Who Work More Likely to Smoke: Study

High school students who work part-time jobs may be gaining just a bit too much real-world experience: A new study suggests they're more likely to start smoking than their peers who don't work.

The study of 10th- and 11th-grade students in Baltimore found that those kids who took jobs -- often in retail outlets and fast-food or other restaurants -- had a greater likelihood of lighting up. And the more they worked, the more they were likely to smoke, the Canadian Press reported.

"Of those who didn't smoke at grade 10, kids who [began working] were at least three times more likely to start smoking than kids who didn't start working," said study lead author Rajeev Ramchand, a psychiatric epidemiologist with the Rand Corp.

Ramchand offered several possible explanations for the finding. One, teens may be exposed on the job to older youths or to adults who are more likely to smoke and where smoking is more common and acceptable.

"Second is that they can now buy cigarettes, as before they may have not had the means, the money, to buy cigarettes," said Ramchand, who conducted the study with colleagues while a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, the news service said.

The findings were published Friday in the American Journal of Public Health.

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Most Medicare Beneficiaries Can Get Lower Drug Premiums in 2008

In 2008, more than 90 percent of U.S. Medicare beneficiaries in a stand-alone Part D prescription drug plan will have access to at least one drug plan with a lower premium than they paid this year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said this week.

Beneficiaries in all states will be able to select at least one plan with premiums of less than $20 a month and from at least five plans with premiums of less than $25 a month. In 2008, the average monthly premium for the basic Medicare drug benefit is projected to be $25, according to HHS.

"The actual average premium paid by beneficiaries for standard Part D coverage in 2008 is expected to be nearly 40 percent lower than originally projected when the benefit was established in 2003. Moreover, our data show that the Medicare prescription drug benefit is saving seniors an average of $1,200 a year," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said in a prepared statement.

The open enrollment period for 2008 begins Nov. 15 and ends Dec. 31, 2007.

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New York Smoking Ban Linked to Decline in Heart Attacks

A reduction in people's exposure to secondhand smoke after New York State banned indoor smoking in virtually all workplaces may have led to an eight percent decline in heart attacks, says a state Health Department report published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The Clean Indoor Air Act took effect in 2003. In 2004, hospitals in the state admitted 3,813 fewer patients for heart attacks than would have been expected without the smoking ban, the study said. There was no change in hospital admissions for stroke, the Associated Press reported.

Some previous studies have found that heart attack rates dropped 27 to 40 percent in areas that banned indoor smoking in public places.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 22 states and the District of Columbia have smoke-free laws for all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, the AP reported. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases nonsmokers' risk of heart disease and lung cancer by up to 30 percent, the U.S. Surgeon General said last year.

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Breath Could Track Diabetics' Blood Sugar Levels

It may be possible to develop a breath test that offers a simple way to check blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, says a University of California, Irvine study that found that people with type I diabetes exhale higher levels of methyl nitrates when they have high blood glucose levels.

Using a chemical analysis technique developed to test for air pollution, the researchers found that methyl nitrate levels were nearly 10 times higher than normal when children with type 1 diabetes had high blood sugar levels, BBC News reported.

It's believed that methyl nitrate is a byproduct of damage caused to body tissues when blood sugar levels are too high. The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"While no clinical breath test exists yet for diabetes, this study shows the possibility of non-invasive methods that can help the millions who have this chronic disease," said study author Dr. Pietro Galassetti, BBC News reported.

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