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Health Highlights: Feb. 9, 2004

Human Bird Flu Death Toll Climbs to 19 U.S. Ends Search for Mad Cow Cases Feds Using DNA Analysis in Ricin Probe Company IDs Gene That Raises Heart Attack, Stroke Risk Suburban-New York Grocer Recalls Seafood Salad

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

Human Bird Flu Death Toll Climbs to 19

A 27-year-old Vietnamese man whose family raises chickens died Monday, becoming Asia's 19th confirmed human death from bird flu, the Associated Press reports.

While Vietnam and Thailand are the only countries to report human cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) says China, too, may have people infected with bird flu and not even know it, the AP reports. While the organization isn't accusing China of suppressing information like it did during the initial SARS crisis last winter, it says the country is so populous that government officials may not even be aware of bird flu cases within China's borders.

"WHO feels it is conceivable that there may be human cases, given the extent of [China's] outbreaks in poultry," a WHO representative in Beijing told the AP. China has reported confirmed or suspected cases of bird flu in more than a dozen provinces.

It's also possible that Cambodia may have had a human case of bird flu, but it probably will never be confirmed. A 24-year-old Cambodian woman came down with symptoms and died after traveling to Vietnam for treatment, but her body was cremated before any blood samples were taken, according to the wire service.

Meanwhile, state officials in Delaware have destroyed a flock of about 12,000 chickens that had a different form of the bird flu virus, which isn't considered dangerous to humans.

The AP reports that two birds tested positive for a bird flu strain known as H7 on a farm in southern Kent County. The form of the virus that's dangerous to humans is H5N1. Delaware's agriculture secretary, Michael T. Scuse, said the entire flock had been destroyed.

Discovery of bird flu in the United States has led Japan to halt all imports of American poultry, the wire service reports.

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U.S. Ends Search for Mad Cow Cases

Saying the health threat posed to Americans by mad cow disease has passed, U.S. officials on Monday announced they were ending their search for additional animals infected with the disease.

The hunt began in December when a Holstein cow in Washington state was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the technical name for mad cow disease. It was the first case of the disease ever found in the United States.

The cow was among 25 that authorities think probably ate the same potentially infectious feed given to the Holstein. All 25 were part of a herd of 81 born on a farm in Alberta, Canada, and shipped to the United States in 2001. Officials have found 29 of the 81, including 14 considered most at risk, the Associated Press reports.

Agriculture Department officials said Monday they were halting the search for additional cases. Some may have gone to slaughter, but BSE tests would have spotted any that had mad cow, said Dr. Ron De Haven, the USDA's chief veterinarian.

"We feel very confident the remaining animals, the ones we have not been able to positively identify, represent little risk," he said, adding, the likelihood of finding more cases "is pretty slim at this point."

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Feds Using DNA Analysis in Ricin Probe

Federal scientists using DNA analysis on the samples of ricin found on Capitol Hill last week may determine where the castor plants used to produce the deadly poison were grown, the Washington Post reports.

An expert consulted by the newspaper says analysis of the soil and water content of the ricin sample could provide investigators with ideas of where the poison came from. Castor plants grow in many of the warmer climates in the United States.

DNA analysis has also been performed on two prior ricin samples that had been addressed to the White House and the U.S. Department of Transportation last fall. No one has been injured in any of the incidents. Authorities still haven't identified the person who signed the earlier letters -- the self-identified "Fallen Angel" -- who appeared to have a gripe with recently passed federal trucking regulations. It's not clear whether any letter accompanied the ricin that was discovered last week in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Genetic analysis also has been used in the unsolved 2001 anthrax mailings to Capitol Hill and media representatives in New York and Florida, the Post reports.

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Company IDs Gene That Raises Heart Attack, Stroke Risk

Icelandic researchers say they've identified a gene variant that appears to double a person's risk of heart attack and stroke, The New York Times reports.

The findings were announced Monday by Decode Genetics, the same firm that has identified genes for schizophrenia and osteoporosis. The company says it's already begun trials on a drug to counter the gene's effects.

In Monday's edition of the journal Nature Genetics, Decode says a variant form of a gene known as FLAP (5-lipoxygenase activating protein) appears to nearly double the risk of heart attack and stroke among the 29 percent of Icelanders who have the variant.

But the newspaper cites several experts who say they aren't convinced of the company's claim. Among them is Yale University cardiovascular expert Dr. Richard Lifton, who called the evidence "rather weak" and said that as a peer reviewer, he advised Nature Genetics to reject the company's article.

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Suburban New York Grocer Recalls Seafood Salad

Stew Leonard's, a suburban New York City grocer, is recalling an undetermined amount of its store brand 16-oz. packages of seafood salad or lite seafood salad purchased before Feb. 4, because it contains undeclared soy protein and crab, two known allergens.

The grocer, which has three stores outside of New York City and also does business by mail order, says people who have an allergy to soy protein or crab run the risk of a severe allergic reaction. There is no health hazard for people not allergic to either ingredient.

The grocer says although it's been selling the salad with the same recipe for more than 25 years, the product labels did not reveal the presence of crab and soy protein. No illnesses have been reported to date, and the ingredient labels have been corrected, the company says.

The product was sold at Stew Leonard's stores in Norwalk and Danbury, Conn., and Yonkers, N.Y. The UPC code for the Seafood Salad is 71962-18856 and for the Lite Seafood Salad is 71962-18824. The product has a shelf-life of 13 days.

Consumers can return the product to any Stew Leonard's store for a full refund.

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