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Health Highlights: Sept. 30, 2007

Frozen Beef Patty Recall Widened to 21 Million Pounds Travelers to Latin American, Caribbean Warned of Dengue Fever Outbreak Patients Having Their Own Stem Cells Injected in British MS Study Brain-Eating Amoeba Linked to 6 Deaths Most Medicare Beneficiaries Can Get Lower Drug Premiums in 2008 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.


Travelers to Latin American, Caribbean Warned of Dengue Fever Outbreak

U.S. travelers to Latin America and Caribbean countries are being warned about a major outbreak of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness that has been spreading at a rapid pace in tropical and subtropical countries in recent months.

According to the Associated Press, dengue fever has killed nearly 200 people in Latin America and the Caribbean this year and has infected hundreds of thousands of human victims.

The outbreak is especially evident in urban slums, the wire service reports, and is expected to get worse as the rainy season approaches. There are no vaccines or cures for the four different types of dengue fever, which causes high fever, joint pain, nausea, rashes, and severe headache.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is warning U.S. visitors to Latin America and the Caribbean to use mosquito repellant and stay inside screened areas whenever possible.

"The danger is that the doctors at home [in the United States] don't recognize the dengue," the wire service quotes Dr. Wellington Sun, the chief of the CDC's dengue branch in San Juan, as saying. "The doctors need to raise their level of suspicion for any traveler who returns with a fever."

During the summer of 2007 an outbreak of dengue fever in Asia erupted in a number of countries. By Aug. 1 in Cambodia, nearly 25,000 people had been diagnosed with dengue fever (about three times the number of cases for all of 2005) and nearly 300 children had died, the A.P. reported. In Indonesia, more than 100,000 cases of dengue fever and 1,100 deaths had also been reported during the same time period.


Patients Having Their Own Stem Cells Injected in British MS Study

Six patients in the United Kingdom suffering from multiple sclerosis are having their own stem cells injected into them as an experiment to see whether this type of treatment can repair the neurological damage that causes MS.

The online edition of the London Telegraph reports that the patients at a hospital in the British city of Bristol are participating in the study, in which stem cells are being taken from the bone marrow in their pelvises and then injected into their arms.

The theory is that these stem cells can repair the neurological damage that causes MS, the newspaper reports. "We believe that bone marrow cells have the capability to repair precisely the type of damage that we see in the brain and spinal cord in MS," trial leader Neil Scolding, professor of clinical neurosciences for North Bristol NHS Trust, told the Telegraph.

"So, by giving patients very large numbers of their own bone marrow cells we hope that this will help stabilise the disease and bring about some repair," he concluded. The patients are between 30 and 60 years old.


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.


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.


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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