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Health Highlights: Aug. 7, 2003

2003 Could be Worst Year Yet for West Nile Measles on the Rise in Britain Children Sleep Through Smoke Alarms Youth Smoking Survey Shows Little Gender Difference Driver Distraction Not Limited to Cell Phones

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

2003 Shapes Up as Worst Year Yet for West Nile

The number of West Nile virus infections in the United States has tripled since last week. That means more people could be stricken with the disease this year than ever before, federal officials warn.

A total of 16 states have now reported a total of 153 human cases of infection. Colorado has been hit hardest, with 72 cases. Texas follows with 19 and Louisiana with 15, HealthDay reports.

Federal health officials have officially confirmed four deaths, but these reports typically lag those of state health departments. Colorado officials have reported four deaths, for instance.

At this time last year, there were 112 cases of West Nile in four states, with Louisiana leading the pack. Colorado had no cases.

"We are starting the epidemic with more cases and more areas affected, and if the same pattern holds true, we may be seeing an even greater number of affected people," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing Thursday.

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Measles on the Rise in Britain

Measles is posing a growing risk to children in Britain as parents shun vaccinations for fear of their side effects.

British researchers report in the Aug. 8 issue of Science that the level of vaccinated children in Britain has dropped below 80 percent, down from 92 percent in 1995, while at the same time the nation is experiencing more frequent and larger outbreaks of measles.

Last year, there 308 cases of measles, a small number in a country the size of Britain, but Dr. Mary E. Ramsay of the Health Protection Agency, a co-author of the study, told the Associated Press that is triple the number from 2001. "The greater concern is that we are seeing larger outbreaks instead of small clusters," said Ramsay.

She said the decline in inoculations can be traced to a series of papers that suggested a link between autism among children and the combination vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella known as MMR. Other studies have refuted that link, she added.

Dr. Samuel L. Katz, a Duke University pediatrics professor who is a prominent figure in research on vaccination policies, said U.S. vaccination rates remain at about 98 percent after a number of studies by prominent medical organizations concluded that the vaccine is safe and not the cause of autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 19 reported cases of measles in the United States in 2002.

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Children Sleep Through Smoke Alarms

Many children are such sound sleepers that they wouldn't be awakened by the blaring sound of home smoke alarms, according to a research panel convened by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

In a series of experiments conducted in Milwaukee and Dallas by UL and local television stations, some children failed to be awakened after eight minutes of the home alarms blaring, reports the Associated Press. Two minutes is considered an optimal escape time, the wire service reports.

Experts say the findings suggest that more than traditional smoke alarms may be needed to ensure children's safety. UL -- an independent organization that certifies the safety of various consumer products -- has proposed ideas like recording of parents' voices, vibrating alarms, and flashing strobe lights, the AP reports.

According to a UL review of government data, during the last decade more than 33,000 deaths from residential fires were reported nationwide. Of those deaths, nearly one-quarter were children under age 15.

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Youth Smoking Survey Shows Little Gender Difference

Estimates of future tobacco deaths among smoking youths may be underestimated, since they are based on smoking patterns of adults, new research reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.

Unlike adults -- where women are only about one-forth as likely as men to smoke -- there appears to be no gender difference among youths, the study finds. In addition, girls surveyed in six regions around the world were as likely as boys to use products like spit tobacco, bidis, and water pipes.

Experts quoted in a CDC statement say the findings could raise the World Health Organization's projection of 10 million tobacco-related deaths worldwide by the year 2030.

Only in the Eastern Mediterranean region were boys more likely than girls to smoke cigarettes and use other forms of tobacco, the survey finds.

The report, published in the August issue of the Journal of School Health, stems from the Global Youth Tobacco survey, sponsored by various agencies of the U.S. and Canadian governments and the World Health Organization. The largest of its kind, the survey tracks more than 1 million adolescents from more than 150 countries.

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Driver Distraction Not Limited to Cell Phones

Cell phones are often blamed for causing car crashes, but a new study finds that some decidedly low-tech distractions are competing for the attention of drivers.

Eating, reading, grooming, changing radio stations, dealing with children, looking out the window, or just plain talking were found to be equally or more distracting than cell phone usage, according to the study.

The study, from the University of North Carolina, aims to focus on the problem of driver distraction in general, which is suspected of causing 1.2 million accidents a year -- 30 percent of all police-reported crashes.

"Although recent research has focused on cell phones and other technologies, our work demonstrates that many distractions are neither new nor technological," Dr. Jane Stutts, director of the university's Highway Safety Research Center, said in a statement. "Rather, they are aspects of everyday driving that people are likely to seldom think about."

The researchers found that 30 percent of the drivers used cell phones, but 40 percent read or wrote (usually while at a stop light), 46 percent groomed themselves, 71 percent ate or drank, and 92 percent worked the radio controls.

In response to the study, the Governors Highway Safety Association urged states not to enact laws that single out cell phone usage. "Simply banning drivers from talking on a cell phone while driving sends a bad and potentially dangerous message," said Jim Champagne, vice chair of the group. The problem is that such laws don't address "other distracting behavior."

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