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Health Highlights: Feb. 23, 2004

Health Officials Upgrade Texas Bird Flu Threat Hepatitis Drug Shows Promise Against SARS Spider Toys Recalled Due to Choking Threat FDA Asks States to Stop Pointing to Canadian Drug Sites UN: AIDS is Ravaging Eastern Europe, Asia Cancer-Stricken Premier Quits, Urges Kids Not to Smoke

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

Health Officials Upgrade Texas Bird Flu Threat

A strain of bird flu detected last week on a Texas chicken farm is highly contagious and much more dangerous to chickens than originally thought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday.

The Texas version, however, is not the strain that's responsible for 22 human deaths and the mass culls of some 80 million birds in Asia, USDA spokesman Dr. Ron DeHaven told the Associated Press.

In its present form, the strain at an unidentified farm in Gonzales County is thought to pose little threat to people, Dr. Nancy Cox of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the wire service.

While chickens at the farm were destroyed, some infected birds were shipped to live poultry markets in Houston before the discovery, DeHaven said. Birds at those markets also were subsequently culled.

Last Friday, Texas officials announced that the outbreak involved a low-pathogenic version of bird flu, meaning it posed little risk to people and low risk to birds. But the USDA spokesman said it was reclassified after genetic testing over the weekend. DeHaven added that it's the first time since the mid-1980s that a high-pathogenic version of bird flu has affected the United States, the AP reports.


Hepatitis Drug Shows Promise Against SARS

A drug used to fight diseases like hepatitis C and various forms of cancer shows promise in treating the virus that causes SARS, Dutch scientists say.

Virologist Ab Osterhaus, of the Influenza Centre in Rotterdam, identified the drug as pegylated interferon alpha. In tests on apes infected with the SARS germ, multiplication of the virus cells was drastically reduced after the primates were injected with the drug. Damage to the lungs was also greatly reduced, the wire service Expatica News reports.

Details of the research appear in the new issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

Although the drug hasn't been tested yet on human SARS patients, Osterhaus believes it will produce similar results. "It looks like the virus spreads in apes and in humans in a similar way," he says.

The drug could be particularly useful to health-care workers treating patients during a SARS outbreak, Expatica News reports.

SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- first surfaced in China in late 2002. It eventually infected an estimated 8,100 people worldwide and caused nearly 800 deaths before subsiding by last spring.


Spider Toys Recalled Due to Choking Threat

Ten thousand "Webster" Activity Spider Toys have been recalled because they pose a choking hazard to young children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

The round, stuffed feet on the spiders can detach, says the agency, which announced the recall in cooperation with the toy's manufacturer, Mary Meyer Corp. The company has received five reports of the feet detaching; no injuries have been reported.

The toys can be hung from a crib, carriage or other object. They were sold at department and specialty stores nationwide from January 2002 through September 2003 for about $10.


Consumers are urged to call Mary Meyer Corp. at (800) 451-4387 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday for instructions on returning the toy and receiving a replacement product.


FDA Asks States to Stop Pointing to Canadian Drug Sites

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants Minnesota and Wisconsin to change current or planned Web sites that direct residents to specific Canadian pharmacies that sell cheaper prescription drugs, the Washington Post reports.

Minnesota put up the information last month, and Wisconsin plans to install a similar Web page sometime this week, the newspaper says. Officials from both states say by pointing residents to reliable sites, they are only trying to protect those who are already buying their drugs from Canada.

An FDA spokesman tells the Post that the agency is gearing up for the possibility that both states will ignore its request. For months, the FDA has opposed formal state and municipal efforts to buy Canadian drugs for employees and retirees, saying it can't vouch for the imported drugs' safety.

"We are weighing our enforcement options now and deciding how to proceed," FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts tells the newspaper.

Late last week, 12 mayors from four New England states wrote a letter urging U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to help structure a formal way to certify the safety of drugs bought from Canadian suppliers.


UN: AIDS is Ravaging Eastern Europe, Asia

Eastern Europe and Central Asia are experiencing the fastest-growing epidemics of HIV/AIDS in the world, the chief of the United Nations AIDS organization tells the Associated Press.

A combined 1.5 million people are infected in both areas, compared with just 30,000 known cases in 1998, says the agency's executive director, Peter Piot. And in Western Europe, 30,000 to 40,000 new cases were registered last year. That, Piot says, is "an unacceptable occurrence for one of the richest regions in the world."

Piot released the grim statistics during the opening session of a two-day AIDS conference attended by representatives of 55 nations in Dublin, Ireland.

"Developed countries are good at recommending to our African colleagues what they should do," Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told his counterparts. "[But] we must not delude ourselves that HIV/AIDS is an exclusively African problem."


Cancer-Stricken Premier Quits, Urges Kids Not to Smoke

Labeling himself an "idiot" for taking up smoking 35 years ago, Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon has resigned his post and is urging young people not to begin the "stupid, stupid habit," The Australian reports.

Bacon, 53, confirmed Sunday that he had been diagnosed 10 days earlier with an inoperable lung tumor. He said he was stepping down immediately to begin intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

"Please don't be a fool like me, don't keep smoking, try and give it up. And if you are young and haven't started, don't start," he told Tasmania's youth.

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