Health Highlights: Dec. 3, 2003

Study: Painkillers Cut Stomach Cancer Risk Radiation Needed to Fight Breast Lesions U.S. Moves to Protect Imported Food Is U.S. Prepared for Flu, SARS? Nicotine Patch May Help 'Senior Moments' Bush Wants to Ease Mercury Standards: Report

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

Study: Painkillers Cut Stomach Cancer Risk

Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce the risk of developing stomach cancer when used over a long period of time, a new study says.

Agence France-Presse reports that researchers from Hong Kong, reviewing data from 2,831 stomach cancer patients, found that long-term use of aspirin or NSAIDs cut the risk of developing the disease by 22 percent.

But one of the researchers told AFP that it was far too soon to say that aspirin could be used as a treatment for stomach cancer. "The results we have at this stage is for prevention only and we do not want to cause confusion that this could also be for treatment purposes," said the researcher, Benjamin Wong from the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Medicine.

According to the AFP account, stomach cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the world, and the second leading cancer killer.

The research appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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Radiation Needed to Fight Breast Lesions

Surgery alone is not enough to fight a common type of breast lesion, researchers say.

A team of doctors from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that women whose surgery for the lesions, called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), was not followed by radiation were more likely to experience recurring episodes.

DCIS is harmless as long as it is confined to milk ducts. Surgery removes the lesions along with some surrounding healthy tissue. DCIS can develop into invasive breast cancer, but there is no consensus about how aggressively to treat the lesions.

The researchers found that 13 of 157 patients they tracked who had surgery alone developed repeated episodes of DCIS on the same breast, nine developed a new lesion on the other breast, and four developed invasive cancer.

The research was presented Wednesday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

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U.S. Moves to Protect Imported Food

The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday agreed to allow the FDA to use customs officers to inspect imported foods.

The memorandum of understanding is part of the Bioterrorism Act, which aims to protect imported food from being tainted and used as a weapon.

"It enables us to work more efficiently with CBP, combining their strong resources with our own expertise in keeping on the alert for potentially hazardous foods and responding to possible threats," FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said in a statement. "We are committed to using the bioterrorism law to safeguard our food supply to the fullest extent possible, without imposing any unnecessary costs or restrictions on food imports."

The new law also forces facilities that make or pack food to register the food on the Internet.

"We want all FDA bioterrorism regulations to be examples of a government that communicates with stakeholders in order to craft clearly understood rules that protect consumers without creating undue burden on the industry," said McClellan. "In the meantime, we have taken steps to make sure that food that presents a threat will be detained and all available records will be used to track down significant food risks."

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Is U.S. Prepared for Flu, SARS?

The United States is unprepared to deal with major outbreaks of flu or SARS, two separate reports conclude.

Flu outbreaks are normally contained each year because many people are vaccinated against strains that are known to exist, says a report from St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. But if a deadly, previously undetected strain were to emerge, it would wreak havoc throughout the United States -- and the world, write flu experts Richard Webby and Robert Webster in the journal Science.

The authors suggest testing new methods of mass-producing new vaccines in a short amount of time. They also recommend stockpiling anti-viral drugs to meet a possible pandemic and implementing new surveillance methods to quickly detect global hotspots, according to a report in USA Today.

The authors warn that "we're overdue" because it has been 30 years since the last pandemic.

On a similar note, a new report commissioned by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the United States would be ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak of SARS.

University of Louisville researchers cite a lack of disease specialists and significant cuts in state and local health budgets. They recommend creating more hospital centers to deal specifically with infectious disease outbreaks; better coordination among federal, state and local agencies; and improved public health education about the dangers of SARS, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

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Nicotine Patch May Help 'Senior Moments'

The same nicotine patch that helps smokers quit may also boost the recall of elderly people with the mildest form of memory loss, Duke University researchers say.

In a very small, four-week study of 11 patients, people with age-associated memory impairment (AAMI) improved recall/decision times by 50 percent, the researchers report. They were also better able to focus their attention on critical tasks, and the participants' perceptions of their own memories significantly improved.

Writing in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychopharmacology, Dr. Heidi White and Edward Levin emphasize that these preliminary findings should not encourage seniors to smoke, adding that the patches themselves have health risks -- including nausea, dizziness, and increases in blood pressure and heart rate. The patches have not been approved for long-term use, they add.

Nicotine's effects on the brain are thought to mimic the natural chemical acetylcholine, which plays a role in learning and memory, the authors say.

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Bush Wants to Ease Mercury Standards: Report

The Bush administration is proposing a plan to ease regulations covering mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, The New York Times reports.

Documents obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that mercury emissions be removed from the strictest regulations contained within the Clean Air Act. Among the other toxic, cancer-causing pollutants covered by this portion of the act are asbestos, chromium and lead, the newspaper says.

Under the proposal approved by the new EPA administrator, Michael Leavitt, mercury would fall under less-stringent portions of the act that regulate non-toxic pollutants responsible for smog and acid rain, the paper says.

The administration says the plan would make mercury regulation faster and more efficient -- a stance disputed by environmental groups that provided the Times with the new proposal.

Coal-burning power plants release some 48 tons of mercury into the air each year, or about 40 percent of mercury emissions caused by humans, according to EPA estimates cited by the newspaper.

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