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Health Highlights: Dec. 26, 2003

U.S. Looks at Better Tracking of Meat Salmonella Outbreaks Declining, Feds Say CDC Reports Flu Hitting Across the U.S. Researchers Discover 1st Treatment for Exercise Disorder

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

U.S. Looks at Better Tracking of Meat

With British confirmation that the United States does indeed have its first case of mad cow disease, American health officials are now scrutinizing the existing inspection process for meat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to determine whether to do far more screening and also change the way meat from suspect animals is used, department officials told The New York Times.

And a task force of industry and government experts has already drafted a preliminary plan for a national tracking system to quickly quell outbreaks of disease or threats of terrorism, the Associated Press reports.

The task force has explored tracking cattle and other farm animals with radio frequency devices in ear tags or implants as part of the U.S. Animal Identification Plan, expected to be implemented over the next three years, the AP reports.

Meanwhile, USDA officials acknowledged that European and Japanese regulators screen millions of animals using tests that take only three hours, which is fast enough to stop diseased carcasses from being cut up for food.

U.S. inspectors have tested fewer than 30,000 of the 300 million animals slaughtered in the last nine years, and they get results days or weeks later, the Times reports. And according to Dr. Ron DeHaven, the USDA chief veterinarian, the U.S. system was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public's refrigerators. It is "a surveillance system, not a food safety test," he said.

The preliminary British finding that one Washington state Holstein had the deadly brain-wasting disease before it was slaughtered Dec. 9 came Thursday from researchers at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, England, The Times of London reported.

"We are considering this confirmation," USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison was quoted as saying by the AP. She added that the English lab will still conduct its own test using another sample from the cow's brain, and those results are expected by the end of the week.

Despite the finding, which solidifies what U.S. officials first announced on Tuesday, health experts still insist the health risk to humans at this point is low.

Nevertheless, U.S. food safety officials were working through the holidays to prevent a potential outbreak of mad cow disease.

But the world's largest beef importers reacted instantaneously. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico and Russia all have imposed various bans on U.S. meat.

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Salmonella Outbreaks Declining, Feds Say

A new federal health study finds that outbreaks and deaths from one of the worst strains of salmonella to hit the United States in recent decades are on the decline.

The rise of salmonella enteritidis in the 1980s was one of the most serious food-borne epidemics in recent U.S. history, according to an Associated Press report. The bacteria strain rapidly spread from the Northeast to the rest of the country, and by the early 1990s it had reached Hawaii and other continents.

But since the early 1990s, the case rate has been cut by half, according to the study, which will be published in the January issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 1995, infections from the strain reached a high of 3.9 per 100,000 people; that dropped to 1.98 per 100,000 in 1999, according to the study, now available on the CDC Web site. In addition, deaths from such outbreaks in health facilities dropped from 14 in 1987 to zero in 1999.

The strain causes fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea in most people for up to a week, but can cause death in the elderly, infants and people with impaired immune systems.

Health officials credited the reduction to extensive control efforts, including encouraging the use of pasteurized eggs, refrigerating eggs and teaching people to avoid eating raw or runny eggs.

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CDC Reports Flu Hitting Across the U.S.

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.

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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.

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