Health Highlights: Dec. 25, 2003

U.S. Beef Supply Called Safe Flu Hits Across the U.S., CDC Says Researchers Discover 1st Treatment for Exercise Disorder Pentagon Defends Anthrax Shots for Personnel

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

U.S. Beef Supply Called Safe

Despite confirmation from British experts that the U.S. seems to have its first case of mad cow disease, American health officials agree the risk to humans at this point is low.

"It's like an alert. We're not as safe as we thought we might be," David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told HealthDay. The institute is a cooperative venture between the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Nonetheless, the Washington state slaughterhouse that processed the diseased cow along with 19 others on Dec. 9 has recalled all 10,410 pounds of raw beef it sent out that day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Wednesday.

Vern's Moses Lake Meat Co. said it is conducting the voluntary recall "out of an abundance of caution," even though the meat "would not be expected to be infected or have an adverse public health impact," the Associated Press quoted the company as saying.

USDA officials said Wednesday that the diseased cow, a Holstein, joined a Mabton, Wash., farm herd of 4,000 in October 2001 and was culled from the other cows on Dec. 9 after becoming paralyzed, apparently as a result of calving. The cow was slaughtered that day, and parts went to at least three processing plants, which officials haven't yet identified, the AP added. The rest of the herd is expected to be slaughtered now.

The New York Times reported late Wednesday that USDA officials also said that the cow, which was believed to be four years old, probably contracted the disease from feed as a young animal, but that they did not know where it was born or where the other animals in that herd are now.

The AP reported that because the brain-wasting disease is normally transmitted through contaminated feed and has an incubation period of four to five years, USDA chief veterinarian Ron DeHaven said it is "important to focus on the feed where she was born" in 1999.

The discovery of mad cow, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States was bound to happen sooner or later, scientists said.

"It was an inevitability," Lineback said. "There was a low probability, [but] when you have that many million cattle, that is still a finite risk of occurrence. It's just a matter of when."

The bottom line: Go ahead and eat hamburger, or steak if you prefer. "At this stage of the game, I do not see warning people to avoid or to minimize anything," Lineback said.


Flu Hits Across the U.S., CDC Says

The flu has reached widespread levels in all but five U.S. states, federal health officials said Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the flu has reached "widespread status," considered the agency's highest outbreak level, in 10 states since last week: Alabama, Alaska, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The Associated Press reports that health departments in the District of Columbia and New York City also reported widespread flu activity. The CDC said influenza-like illnesses are increasing overall, but are decreasing in some areas, including Texas and Colorado, two states that were hit particularly hard by the flu early this season.

CDC officials have characterized this season's outbreak as a epidemic, and are particularly concerned that the outbreak has killed at least 42 children.

Meanwhile, many of the people at highest risk of suffering serious flu complications never got a shot this year, according to a new poll from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Officials urge the vaccination for people 65 and over, those with chronic illnesses, and children 6 to 23 months old. But the Harvard survey found that 47 percent of those with chronic illnesses didn't get a shot, and 78 percent of parents of young children reported that they didn't take their children in for a vaccination -- even though most know they should have.

Seniors were most likely to heed the recommendations. The poll found that 71 percent of people 65 and up received the vaccine.

The poll also found that 54 percent of adults don't plan to get a vaccination because they don't think they'll get a serious case of the flu. Also, 45 percent felt the shot wouldn't be effective, and 42 percent worried about side effects.


Researchers Discover 1st Treatment for Exercise Disorder

People with McArdle's disease -- a condition marked by low tolerance for exercise and high risk of activity-related muscle injury -- can dramatically boost their exercise tolerance by consuming a soft drink or its equivalent before physical activity.

That's the conclusion of a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas that appears in the Dec. 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The 2-year study offers the first viable treatment for McArdle's disease, a muscle disorder first identified in the 1950s that results from a deficiency of an enzyme that breaks down muscle glycogen -- a carbohydrate long known to be an important anaerobic fuel. Less well recognized is the fact that glycogen is also critical for normal oxidative metabolism, the researchers say.

"When there is no glycogen available, as is the case in McArdle's disease, patients have a very low oxidative capacity and rapidly fatigue with modest exercise such as walking up a slight incline," said Dr. Ronald Haller, a professor of neurology and internal medicine at UT Southwestern, and senior author of the study.

"By using an oral source of glucose -- the equivalent of a soft drink -- we show in this study that these patients are able to undertake exercise more easily, especially in the first eight to 10 minutes of physical activity. That's important because it's in that period that they are particularly vulnerable to muscle injury," Haller says.


Pentagon Defends Anthrax Shots for Personnel

Military officials on Tuesday said they disagree with a judge's ruling saying they can't force personnel to get an anthrax shot against their wishes.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference that the vaccine is approved, has been around for 40 years, and has not proven to do any harm.

"I think it's very important that we have this capability to protect our troops," Myers said.

On Monday, a federal court ruled that the Pentagon cannot force U.S. service members to get the vaccination without a signed order from President Bush.

Millions of inoculations have been given to soldiers destined for the Persian Gulf and other high-risk places, and hundreds of service members have been penalized for not taking the vaccinations since they were imposed starting in 1998, the Associated Press reports.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that the anthrax shots fell under a 1998 law that forbids experimental drugs to be imposed without a person's consent, or without a presidential waiver, the AP says.

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