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Health Highlights: Dec. 31, 2003

Hepatitis B Rates Continue to Drop Flu Activity Widespread in 45 States Powell Back at Work After Prostate Surgery FDA Reasserts Safety of Anthrax Vaccine China Allows Foreign Testing to Confirm SARS Case Is There a Doctor On Board? Yes, 15 of Them

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

Hepatitis B Rates Continue to Drop

Rates of acute hepatitis B continue their march downward, especially among children, and the government is crediting a vaccine that protects against the liver disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that, between 1990 and 2002, the overall rate of hepatitis B declined by 67 percent, from 8.5 per 100,000 people to 2.8 per 100,000. The sharpest drop, 89 percent, was seen among people 19 years of age and under.

The government in 1991 began a campaign to eliminate hepatitis B transmission to infants through a universal vaccination campaign; it was widened in 1995 to include adolescents. No such program exists for adults, who accounted for the slowest decline in the disease, though the CDC says some programs ought to be implemented for those at highest risk.

Hepatitis B is a bloodborne virus spread via exposure to the skin or bodily fluids of infected people. About 1.2 million Americans have it, according to the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Those at highest risk are men who have sex with men and those who use needles to inject drugs.

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Flu Activity Widespread in 45 States

The flu is beginning to wane in Western-South Central states but is still widespread in 45 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.

As of Dec. 20, hospital visits declined in Western and South Central states that were hit hard early, the CDC reported. The highest activity was seen in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, according to a report in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Also as of Dec. 20, flu and pneumonia accounted for 7.8 percent of all deaths in the United States, reaching the epidemic threshold, according to the CDC.

The only states spared widespread activity so far are Florida, New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, each of which had regional activity. Hawaii reported only local flu activity.

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Powell Back at Work After Prostate Surgery

Secretary of State Colin Powell reported back to work Wednesday, two weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous prostate gland.

Agence France-Presse reports that Powell chaired a staff meeting and had a telephone conversation with International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed El Baradei, who has just finished a visit to Libya, according to State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

According to AFP, Powell isn't expected to resume a full schedule until after the new year.

Powell, 66, had been resting at his home in northern Virginia since being released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Dec. 18, according to AFP.

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FDA Reasserts Safety of Anthrax Vaccine

In an effort to counter a recent federal court ruling that labeled the anthrax vaccine an experimental drug, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it's recertifying the inoculation as safe and effective "regardless of the route of exposure."

In a statement issued Tuesday, the agency noted that the government first approved the human vaccine for use in 1970. It also cited a recent review by the Institute of Medicine, which concluded that the inoculation successfully and safely protected people against Bacillus anthracis spores, including their most deadly form -- inhalation anthrax.

The FDA's recertification follows the Dec. 22 ruling by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who said that, without a signed waiver from President Bush, the Pentagon must stop requiring service personnel at risk to get the vaccine. He cited a 1998 law that forbids forcing Americans to obtain inoculations or drugs considered experimental.

In its formal response, the FDA said it "does not regard the approved anthrax vaccine as 'investigational' for protection against inhalation anthrax." The agency said its conclusions "should be considered in any further litigation in this matter."

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China Allows Foreign Testing to Confirm SARS Case

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it will oversee new testing on the Chinese man who is suspected of harboring the SARS virus. Beijing's apparent blessing comes after its own repeated tests on the man, suspected of being China's first SARS case in seven months, proved inconclusive.

The suspected patient is a 32-year-old television producer who has been hospitalized since Dec. 20 in Guangdong province. Chinese health officials now pronounce him in stable condition, saying he no longer has a fever, the Associated Press reports.

More than 80 people who may have come in contact with the man have been quarantined, and none has shown symptoms of the sometimes deadly, highly contagious virus, the Chinese Health Ministry says.

The ministry also says it will issue tighter safety rules for lab workers who handle the virus after researchers in Taiwan and Singapore contracted the disease. Failure to follow laboratory guidelines has been cited in both cases.

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Is There a Doctor on Board? Yes, 15 of Them

If you're going to have a heart attack on a trans-Atlantic jet, make sure there's a doctor on board.

In 67-year-old Dorothy Fletcher's case, there were plenty of them -- and not just doctors, but cardiologists.

When the Liverpool grandmother started having severe chest pain aboard the England-to-Orlando flight, a stewardess yelled out, "Is there a doctor on the plane?" According to an account from BBC News Online, 15 passengers shouted, "Yes." Turns out they were on their way to a cardiologist convention in Florida.

Fletcher, still recovering after last month's incident, credits the Fab 15 for saving her life. "I wish I could thank them but I have no idea who they were, other than that they were going to a conference in Orlando," she tells the network.

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