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Health Highlights: Feb. 11, 2004

Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality Rise Report: Cut Salt, Let Thirst Be Water Guide Malnutrition Today, Obesity Tomorrow Delaware Chickens Slaughtered After 2nd Bird Flu Find Drug That Got Stewart in Trouble Due for FDA Review New AIDS Strategy Helped Identify N.C. Outbreak

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

Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality Rise

The life expectancy of Americans rose to an all-time high in 2002, but the nation's infant mortality also rose for the first time in 44 years, according to a new report.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that Americans, on average, lived 77.4 years in 2002, the last year for which statistics are available. That marked a rise of 0.2 years over the previous year. Men and women and blacks and whites lived longer, according to the CDC.

On the downside, however, the infant mortality rate rose from 6.8 per 1,000 live births in 2001 to 7.0 in 2002, the first recorded rise in that rate since 1958. "Factors such as low birth weight, preterm births, and multiple births all increase the risk of infant death," Edward Sondik, director of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, said in a statement. "This year, some of these risk factors may have played a significant role in the increase in infant deaths, but we'll know more as additional data become available."

Deaths from heart attack and stroke fell about 3 percent, deaths from accidents dropped 2 percent, and cancer deaths declined by 1 percent, the CDC reported. The single largest drop between 2001 and 2002 was for homicide -- 17 percent -- but the agency said that's because the number of homicide deaths rose sharply in 2001 as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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Panel: Cut Salt, Let Thirst Be Water Guide

A new report finds that the majority of Americans and Canadians between 31 and 50 years old -- and especially men -- consume too much salt.

The report, from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), also found that most healthy people satisfy their water intake by letting thirst be their guide.

According to the IOM, 95 percent of American men and 90 percent of Canadian men exceed the "tolerable" upper limits of salt intake, which is 5.8 grams per day. (The recommended intake is 3.8 grams per day for healthy adults between 19 and 50 years old.) It also finds that 75 percent of American women and 50 percent of Canadian women exceed the acceptable levels. It also said that 77 percent of that salt comes from prepared and processed foods.

The report finds that healthy women who appear to be hydrated adequately consumed about 91 ounces of water each day from all beverages and foods. For men, the average was 125 ounces -- just short of a gallon -- a day. It found that thirst and consuming beverages at meals "allows maintenance of hydration status and total body water at normal levels."

The IOM also reported that American men and women consumed only half the recommended intake of potassium, which is 4.7 grams per day.

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Malnutrition Today, Obesity Tomorrow

A new report from the United Nations says that one way to prevent obesity in the future is to cut malnutrition now in pregnant women and children.

The report, from the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), finds that hunger during pregnancy programs fetal tissue to get the most out of the scarce food energy available. That leads to over-nourishment later in life when food is more plentiful. When coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, that leads to obesity.

The FAO finds the problem especially acute in developing countries, where food is becoming more cheap and available. These nations cannot cope with the health costs of treating obesity and the chronic diseases it causes, such as diabetes.

"These ongoing changes in nutrition mean that a growing number of developing countries face the 'double burden' of under- and over-nutrition and their associated economic and health-care costs," the FAO says in a statement.

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Delaware Chickens Slaughtered After 2nd Bird Flu Find

Some 72,000 more chickens have been killed and 80 farms quarantined following discovery of a second case of domestic bird flu on another Delaware farm, the Associated Press reports.

While the strain found in the United States is not the deadly one that's posing a threat to fowl and people throughout Asia, the swift action was taken to try to prevent more foreign bans on U.S. poultry exports, Delaware's Secretary of Agriculture told the wire service. Seven nations, including China and Japan, have banned American poultry since the initial discovery in Delaware last weekend.

The six-mile quarantine will last at least 30 days, and all chickens over 21 days old will be tested every 10 days during the quarantine, Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse says.

In Asia, where the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed 19 people in Vietnam and Thailand, the World Health Organization is criticizing nations that refuse to order mass slaughters of birds at risk, Channel News Asia reports. In the absence of a bird flu vaccine, the WHO says mass culls are the only way to prevent the epidemic from spreading.

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Drug That Got Stewart in Trouble Due for FDA Review

The anti-cancer drug Erbitux is expected to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval sometime this week, The New York Times reports.

On its own, the drug could represent another option for people with advanced colon cancer who have run out of alternatives, the newspaper says. But its notoriety stems from its connection to domestic-style guru Martha Stewart, who is charged with illegally selling shares of the drug's manufacturer, ImClone, when an initial FDA review didn't go as planned. Two years ago, the FDA rejected the company's first application, saying the firm's clinical trials were poorly designed and conducted.

While Erbitux may not be a "miracle" drug as once touted, it does show promise, experts tell the Times. Known as a monoclonal antibody, it contains proteins engineered to target molecules that cancer cells need to grow, thus shrinking tumors. And its side effects reportedly are more tolerable than conventional chemotherapies.

Initially, Erbitux would be marketed as a last-stage drug to be administered when conventional chemotherapy has failed. But the drug is likely to face stiff competition from another pending medication -- Genentech's Avastin -- which should gain approval as early as March as an initial colon cancer therapy, not one of last resort, the Times says.

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New AIDS Strategy Helped Identify N.C. Outbreak

A new strategy of AIDS testing led to the discovery last year of a small HIV epidemic in North Carolina among black college students, the Washington Post reports.

The outbreak, which was identified while still growing, was described Monday at the 11th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in San Francisco. It involved 61 male students who had been infected, largely through homosexual activity, within the prior four years.

An investigation into a possible outbreak began in late 2002 when a new testing program run by North Carolina's health department identified two men attending different schools in the same city who had become infected at roughly the same time. The men, whose identities have been kept private, were asked to provide a sexual history, which led to discovery of a "network" of activity among gay black men with shared age, interests and geography, the newspaper reports.

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