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Health Highlights: Feb. 15, 2004

Ultrasound May Treat Cancer, Bleeding Cruise Ship Passengers Fall Ill Bird Flu Death Toll Reaches 20 Schizophrenia Tied to In Utero Lead Exposure FDA Delays Action on 'Morning-After' Pill Panel Urges More Mad Cow Testing

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

Ultrasound May Treat Cancer, Bleeding

Ultrasound, the device best known for imaging unborn babies and internal organs, may find a new therapeutic use: treating cancer and internal bleeding.

The Seattle Times reports that ultrasound may have a place in operating and emergency rooms. Researchers are focusing its high-intensity sound waves so intensely that they produce heat that damages tissue.

Although experts say its everyday use for these purposes is far off, "there will be cancers for which it will revolutionize treatment," the Times quotes Gail ter Haar, a researcher at Royal Marsden Hospital in London, as saying.

The hope is that ultrasound will replace surgery and radiation treatment, and that it will stop bleeding in trauma patients. Researchers say ultrasound can perform the trick without damaging nearby healthy tissue.

The biggest gain so far has been against prostate cancer, according to the Times account. In one French study, 65 percent of 242 men with localized prostate cancer were disease-free after 20 months after ultrasound was directed at the diseased gland.

The research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

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Cruise Ship Passengers Fall Ill

About 300 passengers and crew members were sickened with a gastrointestinal virus while on a cruise from Texas to Mexico, and at least one passenger wondered aloud why the trip wasn't cut short.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the Carnival Cruise Lines ship Celebration departed Galveston on Monday, and that the passengers began falling ill by Wednesday. The ship, which went to Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula, returned Saturday as scheduled.

Approximately 20 percent of the 1,576 passengers and 3 percent of the crew members suffered from diarrhea and vomiting, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokeswoman for Carnival told the Chronicle that they appeared to have been stricken with a norovirus, though confirmation isn't expected until next week.

One passenger who asked not to be identified asked why the trip hadn't been curtailed, especially since hundreds of passengers were quarantined in their cabins. "We avoid eating in Mexico, and that's why we eat on board, but when we get sick on board, it ruins the vacation," she told the newspaper.

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Bird Flu Death Toll Reaches 20

A 13-year-old Thai boy became the 20th person to be killed by an outbreak of avian flu, which United Nations officials say has not been controlled in Asia -- and may have spread to other animals.

The Associated Press reports that the boy became ill 10 days after many of his family's chickens died mysteriously. He is the sixth known human victim of bird flu in Thailand; 14 confirmed deaths are reported in Vietnam.

The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Program warned that, despite the culling of millions of chickens and ducks, the virus has not been brought under control. According to the AP, the virus appears to be spreading to other species. Among them are a heron in Cambodia, possibly a leopard and cranes in Thailand, and pheasants in Taiwan. Officials said the leopard may have eaten a raw chicken stricken with the virus

India plans to host an emergency meeting of health and agricultural officials from seven south Asian countries Monday in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.

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Schizophrenia Tied to In Utero Lead Exposure

Columbia University researchers are linking the risk of developing schizophrenia to the amount of lead a baby was exposed to in the womb.

The BBC reports that people whose mothers took in high amounts of the heavy metal in exhaust fumes were twice as likely to develop the mental illness in adulthood. The research is based on blood samples taken from pregnant American women in the 1960s, when lead was a common additive in gasoline.

"It's the first time that any environmental toxin has been related to the later risk of schizophrenia," the lead researcher, Dr. Ezra Susser, told the BBC. "It's a preliminary finding, but an intriguing one. We think that people will now look at a variety of environmental toxins which can disrupt brain development, and see whether they are also related to the risk of schizophrenia."

Susser, who delivered his findings at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, speculates that lead interferes with the growth of nerve cells in a key developmental period in the womb.

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FDA Delays Action on 'Morning-After' Pill

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has delayed an application that could make the so-called "morning-after" contraceptive pill available without prescription, the Washington Post reports.

Barr Laboratories, the marketer of the pill called Plan B, announced Friday that the FDA wants another 90 days to review the application, which had been due for a decision by Feb. 20.

The agency told the company that it needed the additional time to review new information on the pill, especially on how likely teenagers are to use it, according to the Post.

Critics immediately criticized the delay, saying that the FDA was responding to political pressure instead of medical concerns. "It appears that the FDA is taking the advice of special interests over an expert, scientific panel that has said Plan B is safe and effective," the Post quotes Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), as saying.

An FDA advisory panel recommended 24-3 in December to make the drug available over the counter. But there is strong opposition among some members of Congress, 49 of whom wrote to President Bush last month urging that the pill's prescription-only status be preserved. The letter, authored by Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.), says wider use could encourage sexual promiscuity and venereal disease, the Post reports.

Advocates of the switch say scientific studies have shown nothing of the kind, and are urging the Bush Administration not to yield to political pressure. In response to Weldon's plea, 76 other members of Congress have written their own letter to FDA Director Mark McClellan, urging him to base the agency's decision "upon the clear scientific evidence."

The morning-after pill was approved as a prescription drug in 1999. Each dose costs between $30 and $40, the newspaper says.

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Panel Urges More Mad Cow Testing

Advisers urged the U.S. government on Friday to increase its testing for mad cow disease to learn how severe and widespread the problem is.

The New York Times reports that the panelists concluded that, without further testing, it was impossible to gauge the risk to humans who could be exposed by eating meat or through drugs, cosmetics, and dietary supplements that are derived from cattle.

"We have to know what the risk is, and whether we could contain it or whether we could stop it," the Times quotes Dr. Stephen DeArmond, a member of the Food and Drug Administration panel, as saying.

The Agriculture Department said it planned to test 40,000 cows in 2004, out of 35 million to be slaughtered, according to the account.

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