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Health Highlights: April 22, 2005

FDA OKs Return of Contraceptive Sponge Dutch Woman Diagnosed With Mad Cow Lexington, Ky., Tops Allergy Capitals List U.S. Traffic Death Rate Hit Record Low in 2004 Vaccine Preservative Not as Dangerous as Claimed: Study Global War on Malaria Making Slow Progress

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

FDA OKs Return of Contraceptive Sponge

Like Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld," millions of American women may no longer have to measure prospective mates as "spongeworthy." The contraceptive sponge is poised to make a comeback.

The Today Sponge, pulled from shelves a decade ago due to production problems at the only plant that made it, was reapproved Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Associated Press reported.

Manufacturer Allendale Pharmaceuticals bought rights to sell the sponge several years ago from the prior maker, Wyeth Co. Then called American Home Products, Wyeth stopped producing the sponge in 1995 rather than follow through on an FDA-ordered factory upgrade. The device's effectiveness and safety were never questioned, the AP said.

The Today Sponge prevents pregnancy by covering the cervix and releasing spermicide. Some 250 million of them were sold from 1983 to 1995, the wire service said.

The product's original withdrawal sparked a "Seinfeld" episode in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character stretched her remaining supply of sponges by setting high standards for their use.

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Dutch Woman Diagnosed With Mad Cow

A woman in the Dutch city of Utrecht has been diagnosed with the human form of mad cow disease, the nation's health ministry announced.

The National Health Inspectorate is investigating whether the illness, known in people as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), could have been transmitted to others, CNN reported.

The government has confirmed that the woman, whose identity was withheld, was not a blood or tissue donor, and did not receive donations from anyone else.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there have been about 155 confirmed and probable cases of vCJD worldwide among the hundreds of thousands of people who may have consumed beef products contaminated with mad cow disease. The one reported case of vCJD in the United States was a young woman who contracted the disease while living in England. She developed symptoms after moving to the United States, the FDA said.

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Lexington, Ky., Tops Allergy Capitals List

Five cities in the southern United States occupy the top five spots as the nation's 100 spring allergy capitals, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's annual rankings released Friday.

The foundation said it compared recorded pollen counts, actual medication use, and the number of board-certified allergists in each metropolitan area.

This year's top five cities of sneeze and wheeze are:

  1. Lexington, Ky.
  2. Little Rock, Ark.
  3. Chattanooga, Tenn.
  4. Louisville, Ky.
  5. Johnson City, Tenn.

A complete list is available at www.AllergyCapitals.com.

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U.S. Traffic Death Rate Hit Record Low in 2004

The death rate on U.S. highways hit a record low in 2004. But the total number of traffic deaths actually increased, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says.

That increase included a rise in the number of deaths of motorcyclists and drivers and passengers in large trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The traffic fatality rate in 2004 was 1.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That's the lowest rate since the rate of 5.50 deaths in 1966, the first year that such figures were recorded, the Associated Press reported.

Overall in 2004, there were 42,800 traffic deaths in the United States, an increase from 42,643 in 2003. Fifty-six percent of the people killed weren't wearing seatbelts. That rate was the same in 2003.

"If this many people were to die from any one disease in a single year, Americans would demand a vaccine. The irony is we already have the best vaccine available to reduce the death toll on our highways -- safety belts," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.

The NHTSA estimated that alcohol-related traffic fatalities would show a decline in 2004, for the second straight year. Final 2004 traffic fatality figures are expected to be released in August, the AP reported.

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Vaccine Preservative Not as Dangerous as Claimed: Study

A University of Washington study suggests that the mercury-based preservative thimerosal used in many vaccines may not be as dangerous as previously believed.

The researchers concluded that thimerosal is less toxic than mercury found in fish and pollution. However, the researchers noted that their study did not prove that thimerosal was harmless, BBC News reported.

They gave either ethyl mercury (found in thimerosal) or methyl mercury (found in pollution and fish) to 41 newborn monkeys. The study found that ethyl mercury cleared the body much more quickly than methyl mercury and, therefore, posed less of a health risk.

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

"The current debate linking the use of thimerosal in vaccines to autism and other developmental disorders has led many families to question whether the potential risks associated with early childhood immunizations may outweigh the benefits," wrote study co-author Thomas Burbacher.

More research is needed to clarify the issue, he said.

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Global War on Malaria Making Slow Progress

Little progress is being made in global efforts to combat malaria, says a special malaria issue of The Lancet medical journal.

Malaria cases have increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000, when the Abuja Declaration promised to halve the number of malaria cases within 10 years, BBC News reported.

Efforts to reduce malaria are failing due to problems with Roll Back Malaria (RBM), an international group of 90 organizations set up in 1998 to coordinate the response to the disease, The Lancet said.

The journal praised RBM for bringing malaria to the world's attention, but said that its "loose association" structure has hindered its efforts to reduce malaria cases. The division of responsibilities between RBM partners, which include the World Bank and the World Health Organization, has not been clear, The Lancet said.

"Five years on from the Abuja Summit, it is clear that not only has RBM failed in its aims but it may also have caused harm," said a commentary in The Lancet.

RBM disputed the claim that malaria cases are on the increase.

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