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Health Highlights: August 1, 2003

U.S. Army Investigating Pneumonia Outbreak in Iraq FDA OKs Hepatitis C Drug for Children West Nile Kills 2 in Texas, Hits Colorado Hard Native Americans' Health Continues to Lag Universities Join Forces to Develop Drugs U.S. Relaxes Frozen Pizza Standards

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

U.S. Army Investigating Pneumonia Outbreak in Iraq

Fourteen U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq have been stricken with serious cases of pneumonia and two have died, prompting the Army to send a six-person team of specialists there to investigate, the Associated Press reports.

Nine soldiers have recovered from the illness and three are still hospitalized. All were so ill that they had to be evacuated from the region while on respirators, the AP says. Most are being treated in Germany

The medical team en route to Iraq includes infectious disease experts and those who will take air, soil, and water samples. The illness has stricken troops from different units in widely scattered areas.

So far, there is no evidence of association with biological weapons or exposure to SARS, military officials told the AP.

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FDA OKs Hepatitis C Drug for Children

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the Schering-Plough drug Rebetol for treating the hepatitis C virus in children, the manufacturer says.

Used in combination with a type of interferon called Intron A, Rebetol is the only approved pediatric hepatitis C therapy, the company says.

The FDA granted Rebetol its so-called "orphan-drug" designation for rarely diagnosed conditions, since the virus is believed to affect fewer than 200,000 children in the United States.

By contrast, some 4 million American adults have been diagnosed with the infection, and 70 percent are expected to develop chronic liver disease. The virus contributes to the deaths of as many as 10,000 Americans annually -- a number that could triple by the year 2010, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics cited by the drug maker.

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West Nile Kills 2 in Texas, Hits Colorado Hard

It's official: The West Nile virus season is well under way.

Texas reports its first two deaths of the year from the mosquito-born disease -- a 68-year-old East Texas man and an 85-year-old North Texas woman, according to an Associated Press account. An Alabama woman in her 80s was the first person in the United States this year to die from the virus, state officials told the AP Monday.

And Colorado quickly rose to the hardest-hit state this week, reporting 18 confirmed cases and 10 suspected instances, the Rocky Mountain News reports. Assuming all 28 cases were confirmed, the state only recorded half that number during all of last year, the newspaper says.

This year's Colorado victims -- all in 12 Front Range and eastern plains counties -- have a higher percentage of serious complications, too, the News says. Six have swelling on the brain known as encephalitis, and five have an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord known as meningitis.

The weather is partially to blame for the spike in the South and West, experts say, as the rainy spring that allowed mosquitoes to breed was followed by lots of heat and humidity, which speeds up their metabolism and encourages their search for food.

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Native Americans' Health Continues to Lag

The general health of Native Americans and natives of Alaska continues to lag the general population, as they suffer high rates of illness and early death from injuries and disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A spokesman cites a poverty rate that's double the national average, rampant alcoholism, the rise of youth gangs, and little access to health care, USA Today reports.

A new CDC study finds:

  • Injuries cause 75 percent of deaths among Native Americans 19 or younger, almost twice the national average.
  • The adult diabetes rate of 15.3 percent among Native Americans and Alaska Natives also is about twice the national rate.
  • Bronchial infections send at least twice as many Native American children to the hospital or doctor's office as the general population.

The study does cite positive trends on the nation's reservations, including improvements in sanitation, a decline in infectious diseases like tuberculosis, and lower infant and maternal mortality rates, the USA Today report says.

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Universities Join Forces to Develop Drugs

Citing a growing unwillingness among major pharmaceutical firms to gamble on untried medical technologies, three prestigious California universities and a nonprofit research firm have announced formation of a company to develop new drugs, reports The New York Times.

Stanford and the University of California branches in San Francisco and San Diego are joining with SRI International to form PharmaStart. They say the consortium will make it easier to bring drugs devised at the schools into animal and, possibly, human trials.

University officials say the drug companies are becoming more intent on funding production of medicines that have already shown at least some benefit among people.

They also cite a growing trend among universities to take drug development more into their own hands, notably for medications that combat rare diseases that don't necessarily offer large markets for the drug firms, the Times reports.

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U.S. Government Relaxes Frozen Pizza Standards

Frozen pizza aficionados might notice less meaty offerings in the near future as the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's relaxing rules that govern how much meat a manufacturer must use in its products.

The current rules state that for any frozen pizza that contains meats like sausage, pepperoni, hamburger, or chicken, 12 percent to 15 percent of the product must be meat. But starting in October, the requirement drops to 2 percent to 3 percent, according to the Associated Press.

An industry spokesman says the change will allow manufacturers to offer more healthful products that still contain meat -- but with less fat and cholesterol.

U.S. supermarkets sold more than $2.5 billion worth of frozen pizzas in the year 2000, according to industry statistics cited by the AP.

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