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Health Highlights: Dec. 30, 2003

U.S. Bans Diet Supplement Ephedra Meatpacking Ban on Sick Cows Announced N.H. Meningitis Cases Unconnected, State Says New Bipolar Drug Approved

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

U.S. Bans Diet Supplement Ephedra

The federal government announced Tuesday a much-anticipated ban on sales of ephedra, the herbal weight-loss supplement that has been linked to at least 155 deaths.

"We are about to ban dietary supplements containing ephedra," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Citing "unreasonable risk," Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan said at the same press conference that "consumers should stop buying and using ephedra products right away."

HealthDay reports Thompson said the agency had notified manufacturers of its intent to publish a final rule banning the sale of supplements containing the compound. The ban comes after the government reviewed more than 16,000 reports of adverse events, Thompson said.

The FDA "will publish a final rule as soon as possible that will formalize its conclusions that dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids present unreasonable risks to those who take them for any reason," Thompson said in a prepared statement. "Today's action puts companies on notice of our intentions, and it tells consumers that the time to stop using ephedra products is now."

The FDA said it has sent 62 letters to firms marketing dietary supplements containing ephedra and ephedrine alkaloids to alert them of the ban.

Ephedrine, the active ingredient, increases metabolic rate, heat production, and the risk of heatstroke. Because ephedra is an herb, it is not subject to regulations governing pharmaceutical drugs and can be sold over the counter.

More than 155 deaths have been linked to ephedra, according to Public Citizen's Health Research Group in Washington, D.C., including this year's death of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Bechler's death resulted in a slew of negative publicity that, in turn, contributed to declining sales of ephedra products. New York, Illinois, and California have already banned ephedra-containing products, as have various sports associations.

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Meatpacking Ban on Sick Cows Announced

The U.S. government announced Tuesday a list of new restrictions to further enhance the safety of the American beef supply, including a meatpacking ban on the use of sick "downer'' cattle like the one discovered last week with mad cow disease.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman also announced bans against the use of small intestines and head and spinal tissue from older cattle in the U.S. food chain, as well as changes in slaughterhouse techniques that aim to prevent accidental contamination of meat with cow nerve tissue, the Associated Press reports. Mad cow disease is spread through such brain and spinal cord tissue.

Under the new regulations, the sick cow slaughtered in Washington state on Dec. 9 that proved to have the nation's first case of the deadly brain disease would not have been allowed to enter the U.S. food chain.

The meat from that cow was allowed to be sold for human consumption after its brain and spinal column were removed and a federal inspector saw no indication of neurological disease. From now on no downed cow can be used for meat. The Agriculture Department estimates that 130,000 down cattle are sent to meatpacking plants each year.

USDA ordered a recall of more than 10,000 pounds of meat from 20 cows slaughtered on the same day at the same Washington state company. The recalled meat was distributed to eight states and Guam, although officials said 80 percent of it went to Oregon and Washington, AP reports.

The officials have maintained they ordered the recall as a precaution, insisting there was, and is, no threat to the safety of the U.S. food supply.

Other new measures include waiting for results on any animal tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) before that animal will be allowed into the food supply. The Washington cow was sent to meatpacking plants almost two weeks before test results showed that it had the disease.

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N.H. Meningitis Cases Unconnected, State Says

There's no evidence that the five recent cases of bacterial meningitis among New Hampshire teenagers are related, state health officials tell the Concord Monitor.

The strain that killed 18-year-old Rachel Perry last weekend is not the same strain contracted by two teenage boys in nearby parts of the state, the officials tell the newspaper. "They don't represent anything more than a coincidental cluster," state epidemiologist Dr. Jesse Greenblatt says.

The state normally has 15 to 25 cases of the disease each year, and with the current 11 in 2003, it's still well within the norm, Greenblatt says. The current statistic includes the five cases recently diagnosed.

While the new findings have New Hampshire health officials cautiously optimistic that there is no statewide epidemic in the making, they continue to warn doctors to monitor patients for signs of the disease, which infects the spinal cord and lining of the brain. Symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, excessive sleeping, and a rash on the feet and hands.

On Tuesday, neighboring Massachusetts reported its third fatal case of the disease this year -- involving a 52-year-old New Bedford man. It appears unrelated to the New Hampshire cases, officials say.

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New Bipolar Drug Approved

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the Eli Lilly medication Symbyax to treat depression associated with bipolar disorder, sometimes referred to as manic depression.

The new drug is a combination of active ingredients found in two other drugs used to treat mental health problems -- the anti-depressant Prozac and the anti-psychotic Zyprexa, the company says.

Bipolar disorder is characterized by debilitating mood swings between deep depression and episodes of abnormal manic euphoria. People with the disorder typically spend more than three times longer in the depressive phase, in which an average of one in four patients attempts suicide at least once, the company says.

People with diabetic conditions and elderly patients with dementia should be carefully monitored while taking Symbyax, Eli Lilly says. Common side effects include drowsiness, weight gain, feeling weak, swelling, tremor, sore throat and difficulty concentrating.

More than 2.5 million Americans have bipolar disorder, but recent research indicates the number may be as high as 10 million, the company says. The World Health Organization estimates it's the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide.

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