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Health Highlights: Feb. 17, 2004

Bird Flu Hits Pets in Japan New Strain of Mad Cow Found in Italy More Blood Donors Needed in U.S. Human Trials to Begin for HIV Vaccine Combination Drugs Back in Style Breast Cancer Linked to Antibiotic Use

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

Bird Flu Hits Pets in Japan

Bird flu has been confirmed in a number of chickens kept as pets in southern Japan, officials in Tokyo tell the Associated Press. The strain is H5, in the same category as the deadly H5N1 form that has led to the slaughter of at least 65 million birds throughout Asia and has killed 20 people in Vietnam and Thailand.

Since the Japanese strain is related but not the exact same form, it's not immediately known whether it poses any danger to people. Local health officials have ordered the pet owners to undergo tests to see if any are infected.

Thailand, meanwhile, says it has confirmed that the H5N1 strain has been detected in about 500 dead storks found outside Bangkok, reports the French wire service Agence France-Presse (AFP). Local officials say they have no immediate plans to kill any of the area's wildlife.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Authority says despite the government-ordered slaughter of millions of fowl, the crisis is far from over, AFP reports.

A spokesman for the World Health Organization says in its present form, bird flu does not appear to represent a major threat to people, AFP adds. But there is the lingering fear among experts that bird flu could combine with the genes of ordinary human flu, posing much more of a danger to people.

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New Strain of Mad Cow Found in Italy

Sophisticated tests performed on Italian cattle have uncovered a new strain of mad cow disease that may be linked to some cases of a similar brain-wasting disorder among people, The New York Times reports.

Many cases of human mad cow-like disease have been labeled "sporadic" -- reflecting an inability to identify a cause. Now the Italian study has scientists wondering if many cases deemed to be "sporadic" may in fact stem from consumption of meat that is infected with strains of mad cow that aren't commonly tested for, the newspaper says.

Mad cow and the similar diseases that attack people involve prions, which are misfolded proteins that eventually turn brains to useless tissue. Most testing of cattle involves looking for a prion that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows and "variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in people.

The new form detected among two apparently healthy cows in Italy appears very different from the strain usually tested. But the authors of the Italian study say it's very similar to the agent that's known to cause "sporadic" CJD in people, the Times reports.

In the United States, about one person per million develops and dies of the "sporadic" form each year, resulting in about 300 cases at any one time, the newspaper says.

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More Blood Donors Needed in U.S.

While the goal of 1.2 million units of blood was achieved during National Volunteer Blood Donor Month in January, many regions in the United States still face serious blood supply shortages.

That's why the American Association of Blood Banks, America's Blood Centers and the American Red Cross are asking for continued blood donations.

"Giving blood is easy, safe, and takes less than one hour," Jim MacPherson, chief executive officer of America's Blood Centers, says in a prepared statement.

"Volunteer blood donations are needed every day to help patients being treated for cancer and other diseases, for organ transplant recipients, and to save the lives of accident victims. Individuals are asked to support their local blood centers by making and keeping an appointment to donate immediately," MacPherson says.

"The winter months are traditionally a time when blood is in short supply due to the holidays, travel schedules, inclement weather, and illness," Marsha J. Evans, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, says in a statement.

If you want to donate blood, you can contact the American Association of Blood Banks at (866) 376-6968, America's Blood Centers at (888) 872-5663, or the American Red Cross at (800) 448-3543.

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Human Trials to Begin for HIV Vaccine

The first human trial of a new potential vaccine to block HIV infection is about to begin in Germany and Belgium.

The first phase of the trial will last a year and include 50 healthy volunteers who will be injected with the vaccine. This testing phase is designed to assess the safety of the vaccine and to determine whether it triggers responses in the human immune system, Deutsche Welle reports.

The trial will be conducted at university clinics in Bonn and Hamburg in Germany and at hospitals in Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium. There is no risk that the vaccine will cause HIV infection in the study volunteers, the researchers say.

The vaccine, known as tgAAC09, targets HIV subtype C, which is prevalent in China, India and South Africa.

If this first phase is successful, the second and third phases will be conducted in developing countries. If the trials prove that the vaccine is safe and effective, it could be available in seven to eight years.

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Combination Drugs Back in Style

A number of drugmakers are returning to an old idea of combining at least two medications in one pill, according to the Washington Post.

This combination approach fell out of favor a few decades ago. One reason was that doctors couldn't change drug doses when using combination pills with a fixed dose of each medication.

But manufacturers seem to have latched back on to the concept of combination pills. The latest is Pfizer Inc.'s Caduet, which combines a drug to treat high cholesterol with a drug that treats high blood pressure. Caduet received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval earlier this month.

Last November, Merck and Schering-Plough filed for FDA approval of a combination of two drugs that lower cholesterol. The companies say the two drugs are more powerful when they're combined.

Several other combination drugs have already been approved by the FDA or are in late-stage trials.

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Breast Cancer Linked to Antibiotic Use

Antibiotic use may be tied to a greater risk of breast cancer, according to a new study reported by HealthDayNews.

Experts are quick to point out, however, that the study, appearing in the Feb. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, does not prove a definitive cause-and-effect relationship.

"There are three possibilities in terms of interpreting this," says Dr. Roberta B. Ness, chairwoman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and author of a related editorial in the journal. "One is that chronic antibiotic use may increase the risk for breast cancer -- that is to say, the antibiotics themselves may have some carcinogenic effect."

"Second is that the antibiotics are not harmful but they mark something that's harmful," Ness continues. "The third possibility is that the authors have observed something in this study that won't be replicated."

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