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Health Highlights: Sept. 30, 2006

U.S. Food-Borne Illnesses Declining: CDC Medicare Drug Plan Choices On the Rise Ordinary Flu Shot Might Help Fight Bird Flu Gene Database Will Further Parkinson's Research

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

U.S. Food-Borne Illnesses Declining: CDC

Despite this month's outbreak of E.coli illness linked to contaminated spinach, Americans are much safer today from food-borne illness than they were 10 years ago, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported Friday.

In fact, cases of sickness linked to tainted food for the year 2005 were far below 1996-1998 levels, in nearly every illness category, the Associated Press reported. The new CDC statistics, culled from its FoodNet tracking system, were presented at a conference of the American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco.

For example, cases of yersinia poisoning have fallen by nearly half in the last decade, shigella cases declined by 43 percent and listeria illness fell by 32 percent. Cases of the most dangerous strain of E. coli, called O157, fell by 29 percent over the 10-year period and salmonella cases declined by 9 percent. Only cases of infection with vibrio -- a bug found in raw oysters -- rose significantly during the ten-year period, by 41 percent, the CDC said.

Better industry oversight and inspection now means that "food is actually cleaner to begin with," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, a leading food scientist at the agency.

Still, the CDC estimates that food-borne germs continue to sicken 76 million Americans each year, sending 323,000 to hospitals and killing about 5,000. The recent spinach-linked outbreak caused 1 death and hospitalized 97 people.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday lifted its warning on eating spinach, except for specific brands packaged on certain days by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Batista, Calif., and the companies it supplied.

On the same day, agency officials warned consumers that certain lots of Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice been linked to four cases of botulism.

The products include all Bolthouse Farms Carrot Juice sold in 450 ml and 1-liter plastic bottles, with "best if used by" dates of Nov. 11, 2006, or earlier, the AP reported.

The botulism cases were linked to poor refrigeration of the product once consumers brought it home. Carrot juice, even if pasteurized, should always be refrigerated until use, the FDA said.

In the latest case a Florida woman suffered paralysis, a symptom of botulism poisoning. Other symptoms include double vision, droopy eyelids and trouble speaking and swallowing.

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Medicare Drug Plan Choices On the Rise

American seniors who thought picking a Medicare "Part D" drug plan was a headache last year will have an even harder time choosing for 2007.

U.S. officials on Friday announced that the number of companies approved by Medicare to offer coverage will rise from just 9 in 2005 to 17 this year.

As reported by the Associated Press, that means that seniors in Oklahoma, for example, will now have 57 stand-alone plans to pick from, compared to 42 this year. Enrollees in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will all have over 60 plans to select from.

Seniors considering a switch to a new plan also have less time this year to make their choice, with an enrollment period for 2007 that begins Nov. 15 and ends Dec. 31. During the plan's roll-out last year, recipients were given 6 months to make their choice.

Part D's critics aren't optimistic. "The incredible confusion that persisted throughout the year is about to get considerably worse," Ron Pollack, executive director of the advocacy group Families USA, told the AP.

But U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was less concerned. "We expect most [enrollees] will not want to change," he said. "However, we do encourage seniors to compare their current plans with the new offerings."

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Ordinary Flu Shot Might Help Fight Bird Flu

Experts say a shot of seasonal flu vaccine could help protect recipients against H5N1 bird flu should it ever start spreading among humans, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Speaking at an infectious diseases conference in San Francisco, Dr. Robert Webster, of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, said half of a group of mice given a component of the regular influenza vaccine survived infection with bird flu.

He and co-researcher Richard Webby noted that ordinary flu vaccine contains the same 'N' ingredient found in H5N1 bird flu virus, which "suggest there is some basic cross-protection," according to Webster. The vaccine wouldn't provide full protection, however, since the 'H' component is so different.

Another expert, Dr. Frederick Hayden of the University of Virginia, stressed that "we need a lot more data from humans" before confirming that regular vaccine might protect people from bird flu.

At the same conference, Webster also noted that ducks are increasingly the "Trojan horse of influenza," according to the AP. That's because ducks now often survive bird flu infection, leaving it more likely that they will spread the disease to humans, who may breathe in virus in live poultry markets and other locales.

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Gene Database Will Further Parkinson's Research

Two new studies of the genetics of Parkinson's disease haven't uncovered major culprits triggering the neurological illness, but they have left a rich database invaluable for further research, experts say.

Both studies are published in the October Lancet Neurology. One effort was funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and is the largest genetics study of its kind so far for Parkinson's disease. However, the researchers say they were unable to confirm that 13 gene variants previously linked to Parksinson's did, in fact, increase risks for the disease.

A second study, led this time by Andrew Singleton of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, focused on the role of common genetic variance in Parkinson's patients. The team did not turn up any one gene variant exerting a large risk for the disease. However, the team say they have "generated publicly available genotype data ... these data can be mined and augmented by other researchers to identify common genetic variability" linked to Parkinson's risk.

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