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Health Highlights: Feb. 25, 2004

Lead Risk in D.C. Water Prompts Warning Breast Cancer Risk Tied to Weight Gain Pig Cell Transplants Stop Diabetes in Rats Predictions of New SARS Outbreaks Fall Short FDA: New Bar Code Rule Will Cut Down on Drug Errors Billions of People Have Tooth Decay, WHO Says

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

Lead Risk in D.C. Water Prompts Warning

Health authorities in Washington, D.C., issued a warning Wednesday urging pregnant women and young children not to drink tap water from lead service lines.

The Washington Post said the warning further recommends that women and children under age 6 in this risk group get tested immediately for lead poisoning. The D.C. Water Authority also plans to issue free water filters to many of those at-risk homes, which number 23,000.

The rare action was prompted by an investigation that found thousands of homes had pipes that contained lead above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. For months, according to the Post, officials dealt with it as an engineering problem, but they have changed their minds and made it a public health concern.

"At the end of the day, it isn't whether there is an engineering solution, but whether the water is safe to drink," the paper quotes City Administrator Robert C. Bobb as saying. "That's what is on people's hearts, souls and minds. We want to assure the public that there are precautions in place to protect them."

The problem isn't limited to homes. Officials announced Tuesday that seven of the city's schools and two parochial schools had pipes in sinks or drinking fountains that also leached lead into the water.

Fetuses and children under age 6 are the most vulnerable to permanent brain damage from lead poisoning.

According to the Post, the warning is described as "a cautionary measure" until engineers figure out why the lead was escaping into the water.

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Breast Cancer Risk Tied to Weight Gain

A new study commissioned by the American Cancer Society finds that a woman's risk of developing breast cancer is strongly linked to how much weight she gains after age 18.

The study looked at more than 62,000 postmenopausal women who were not taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). It found that women not on HRT who had gained between 21 and 30 pounds after age 18 were 40 percent more likely to develop the disease than women who put on no more than five pounds in that time frame.

Researchers first surveyed the women between the ages of 50 and 74 in 1992, asking them their current weight and how much they weighed at age 18. They followed the women for several years afterward.

The more pounds a woman put on, the more acute the problem was, according to the study. Women who gained 70 pounds in adulthood were twice as likely to get breast cancer as women who maintained their youthful weight.

The cancer risk was unrelated to weight gain in women taking HRT because their risk was higher anyway, according to the researchers.

"These findings further illustrate the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life," said Heather Spencer Feigelson, a senior epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and the author of the study.

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Pig Cell Transplants Stop Diabetes in Rats

A novel experiment finds that diabetes can be halted in rats by transplanting embryonic pancreas cells from pigs.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found, to their surprise, that the rats didn't require anti-rejection drugs to halt diabetes from the cross-species transplant.

One group of rats got an injection of pig cell transplants as well as anti-rejection drugs to stop their immune systems from destroying the new cells. A control group got the transplants without the drugs.

The transplants in the rats in the control group took just fine with no immune system attack, the researchers report. The rats then produced their own insulin and gained weight, which they kept on throughout their lives.

"Every once in a while you get lucky, and now we have the possibility of transplanting these pig cells and not having to worry about rejection," says Dr. Mark Hammerman, a professor of renal medicine at the university and the study's leader.

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Predictions of New SARS Outbreak Fall Short

Despite gloomy predictions that SARS would return to Asia with a vengeance during colder weather, only a handful of cases have been diagnosed in the past few months, the Voice of America reports.

While last year's epidemic infected 8,000 people globally and killed nearly 800, health officials say newly implemented preventive measures are now denying SARS a chance to spread. In contrast to the first go-round last year, when the causes of the deadly flu-like outbreaks were little understood, four cases diagnosed in China's Guangdong province since December were detected and isolated quickly.

Some experts say that, in addition to better preventive measures, the SARS virus strain this year seems to be weaker. This year's patients were not as ill and recovered much faster than patients last year, the Voice of America says. Moreover, none of this year's patients appeared to pass the infection to other people, while last year's SARS victims each infected an average of two people, experts say.

While at least four strains of the virus were detected during the initial outbreak, it's too early to draw conclusions about this year's infections, health officials tell the radio network.

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FDA: New Bar Code Rule Will Cut Down on Drug Errors

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will soon require bar codes on thousands of drugs and biological products that could prevent hundreds of thousands of medication errors.

The linear codes -- now a common feature on many consumer items -- must contain the drug's National Drug Code number, and may include information such as the lot number and expiration date, the agency says in a statement. Similar codes will also be required on stored blood and blood by-products, to avoid errors involving the wrong donor blood type.

In some hospitals, bar code implementation has reduced medication error rates by as much as 85 percent, the FDA statement says. It cites a Veterans Affairs Medical Center study in which 5.7 million doses of medication were administered without error.

In the VA study, patients wore bracelets that contained bar codes identifying the patients. Before medication was administered, the patient's bracelet was scanned, as was the drug's product label. Computers then verified the right patient was getting the right drug at the right time, and at the right dose, the agency says.

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Billions of People Have Tooth Decay, WHO Says

Tooth decay affects up to 80 percent of the world's population and is becoming a major cause of malnutrition in underdeveloped nations, the World Health Organization says in a new report.

Not limited to the Third World, tooth decay and other preventable forms of oral disease account for up to 10 percent of health costs in industrialized nations, according to a BBC Online analysis of the report. And tooth decay is the most prevalent oral disease in several Asian and Latin American countries.

Increasing rates of gum disease and oral cancer also are causes for concern, the WHO says. Most children around the world show signs of the gum disease gingivitis, and severe gum disease affects up to 15 percent of most populations, the report warns.

There have also been sharp increases in oral cancers in Denmark, Germany and Scotland.

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