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Health Highlights: Feb. 20, 2004

Asian Bird Flu Confirmed in Domestic Cats Teen Pregnancy, Abortion Rates Drop in U.S. Two Toxin Scares Have D.C. on Watch Artificial Blood Given Without Patient Knowledge FDA Leader to Run Medicare Agency

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

Asian Bird Flu Confirmed in Domestic Cats

Thai officials confirmed Friday that the deadly strain of bird flu sweeping Asia has made the jump to domestic house cats.

Three house cats that died from the disease in a province outside Bangkok are the first known domesticated animals to contract bird flu, the Associated Press reports. The World Health Organization (WHO), on its website Friday, says the cats were part of 15 in one household, 14 of which have died.

While calling the infection of cats an "unusual event," the WHO nevertheless says, "confirmation of infection in cats is not considered likely to enhance the present risks to human health. Nor is it considered likely to influence the future evolution of the outbreak in humans in any significant way."

The disease has killed 22 people in Vietnam and Thailand, while infecting birds in 10 Asian nations. So far, human contact with infected birds has been the only confirmed method of transmission to people.

In Canada, meanwhile, officials are grappling with this week's discovery of a milder strain of bird flu at a farm in British Columbia. As a result, Japan and Hong Kong have imposed temporary bans on chicken imports from Canada. The Canadian strain -- the same one detected last week in three U.S. states -- is thought to pose no danger to people.

And in Texas Friday, health authorities said a single case of the milder strain of bird flu turned up in a flock of 7,000 chickens near San Antonio but is unrelated to the varieties found in Delaware, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, the AP reports. The flock is expected to be destroyed over the weekend.

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Teen Pregnancy, Abortion Rates Drop in U.S.

Continuing a decade-long trend, U.S. teen pregnancy and abortion rates in 2000 show declines among all racial and ethnic groups and in every state, new data shows.

The national teen pregnancy rate declined by 2 percent from 1999 to 2000 and fell by 28 percent from its 1990 peak, according to data the Alan Guttmacher Institute compiled from the most recent figures available, The New York Times reports. The pregnancy rate among black teenagers dropped even more steeply, by 32 percent in the same period.

Nationwide, a third of pregnancies among 15- to 19-year-olds ended in abortion in 2000, down steadily since 1986, and the rate of abortions per 1,000 women in that age group declined to 24 per 1,000, from a high of 43.5 per 1,000 in the late 1980s. Researchers attribute the falling rates to better contraception and or more cautious sexual activity.

But the data released by the institute, a research group supporting abortion rights, showed that among black teenagers, the percentage of abortion rose to 41.5 percent, from a low of 39.6 percent in 1995, the newspaper reports.

Teenage pregnancy rates were highest in Nevada, at 113 per 1,000, and lowest in North Dakota, at 42 per 1,000, well below the national average of 83.6. New Jersey had the highest percentage of teenage abortions, 60 percent, with New York at 58 percent. Kentucky and Utah had the lowest abortion rates, at 13 percent.

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Two Toxin Scares Have D.C. on Watch

The nation's capital is on watch Friday after two separate incidents that raised the possibility of exposure to dangerous toxins.

A suspicious white powder was found Thursday in a State Department building, though preliminary tests have come back negative for dangerous toxins, CNN reports. The powder reportedly was discovered in a package sent to the department's Visa Authentication Unit. City fire department and hazardous materials teams have launched investigations into whether the powder is, in fact, dangerous, and who might have been exposed.

The office in the State Department annex, across from the department's headquarters, has been sealed pending final testing, CNN reports. The employee who opened the package was treated, but the building wasn't evacuated.

And in an unrelated incident, a lab worker in a containment laboratory at nearby Fort Detrick Army base has been placed in isolation after accidentally sticking herself with a needle that may have been contaminated with a deadly form of the Ebola virus, the Washington Post reports.

The incident, reported Friday, occurred Feb. 11, though the scientist so far has shown no symptoms of deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever. The incubation period for Ebola is two to 21 days, but the newspaper reports the woman will be isolated for up to 30 days. She's being allowed to have visitors because she has shown no signs of infection, the Post says.

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Artificial Blood Given Without Patient Consent

An experimental blood substitute is being tested on severely injured patients without their initial consent, the Associated Press reports.

The program was launched in January in Denver, and is also underway or under consideration in Houston; Memphis; Maywood, Ill.; and Rochester, Minn; the wire service says. Patients are being randomly selected to receive the product, called PolyHeme, at the injury scene or en route to a hospital. The project is aimed at achieving one of emergency medicine's longest-running goals -- to find a product that works like human blood on trauma victims but can be administered to people of any blood type.

Almost 100,000 people die of bleeding injuries each year in the United States. Because severely injured patients are often unable to give consent, medical centers testing the new product are exempted from consent rules under a 1996 federal rule that applies to lifesaving emergency research.

Under the rule, the research must be publicized in advance in affected areas -- offering people the chance to opt-out if they so choose. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 no-consent studies since the rule was passed, the AP reports.

The advantages of PolyHeme, made by Illinois-based Northfield Laboratories, is that it has a longer shelf life than blood and can be used in patients of any blood type. The substitute safely dissipates in the body after about 24 hours, the company says.

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FDA Leader to Run Medicare Agency

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been tapped to run the agency that oversees Medicare and its new prescription drug benefits.

President Bush on Friday named Mark McClellan, a physician, economist and brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, to the post of administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The nomination requires Senate confirmation, the Associated Press reports.

McClellan previously served as a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. His deputy commissioner at the FDA, Lester Crawford, will become acting commissioner.

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