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Health Highlights: Jan. 11, 2004

WHO Tracks Another Potential SARS Case in China Discovery of Mucus Blocker Could Aid Asthma Fight Tacoma Tops Stressed-City List Calif. Woman Survives Losing All Her Skin U.S Could Suffer Another Monkeypox Outbreak

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

WHO Tracks Another Potential SARS Case in China

World Health Organization investigators scoured an apartment block in southern China on Sunday to determine if it played any role in the infection of a SARS patient who lived there -- the season's only confirmed case of the virus so far -- while a third suspected case of the virus emerged in the same region.

Dr. Thomas Tsang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Department of Health, told reporters that his agency received word of the latest suspected case from officials in Guangdong province, which abuts Hong Kong. Tsang said the 35-year-old patient has been isolated and hospitalized, the Associated Press reports.

The man does not have a job that involves handling wild animals, and the source of the possible SARS infection was still being investigated, Tsang said.

Meanwhile, WHO officials have asked the Chinese government for more information about test results from a woman in Guangdong whom authorities say could be the country's second SARS case of the season.

The Toronto Star reports that the health officials also suggested further tests would be appropriate for the 20-year-old waitress, who was pronounced a SARS suspect Thursday and quarantined.

WHO officials on Saturday searched the restaurant where the woman, now hospitalized, reportedly served dishes of civet cat and other exotic animals that could carry the virus, the AP reports.

The only confirmed case, a 32-year-old television producer named Luo, left the hospital last week and was pronounced recovered. He told authorities he came into contact with no wild animals, and the source of his SARS remains a mystery.

Guangdong has intensified its campaign to clean streets and wipe out civets, plus other potential carriers labelled the "four dangers" rats, roaches, flies and mosquitoes.

Authorities in Guangdong province have threatened merchants who serve civet cat -- a local delicacy -- with fines of up to $12,000.

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Discovery of Mucus Blocker Could Aid Asthma Fight

An international team of researchers has discovered a compound that blocks the production of excessive mucus, which could point the way to better treatments for asthma, chronic bronchitis, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Scientists working with asthmatic mice found that excess mucus production could be sharply reduced or eliminated using a peptide called MANS. It blocks the protein that causes the excess secretion, the Associated Press reports. Mucus is a thick fluid produced by mucus membranes, which moistens and protects such areas as the digestive and nasal canals. Excess production of it in diseases such as asthma can block airways.

The findings were reported Sunday in the February online issue of the journal Nature Medicine. The research team was led by Kenneth B. Adler of North Carolina State University and included scientists from Pasteur Institute in Paris, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the School of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, Germany.

"These findings could be very important as far as providing direction to eventually lead to therapeutic treatment" of certain respiratory diseases, Adler told the wire service in an e-mail interview.

No side effects were noted in the mice, Adler said, but they were treated for less than an hour. Longer-term studies would be needed to assess the safety of the compound, he added. Nevertheless, depending on the dose, the chemical was effective in reducing excess mucus production in different types of mice, the research showed.

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Tacoma Tops Stressed-City List

Tacoma, Washington, which markets itself as "America's No. 1 Wired City," now has a dubious new title: "America's Most Stressed-Out City."

Beating out better-known cities like New York and Miami, the Northwest city of 195,000 topped the list of 100 large metro areas surveyed by ranking firm BestPlaces, according to the Seattle Times.

BestPlaces based the rankings on a "stress index" of factors that jangle nerves: unemployment rate, divorce rate, commute time, crimes, suicide rate, alcohol consumption, self-reported "poor mental health" and cloudy days.

Tacoma beat the rest mostly because of high rates of divorce, suicide and unemployment, the Times reports. With 12.4 percent of people over age 16 divorced, Tacoma's divorce rate falls in the 95th percentile. Its suicide rate is in the 92nd percentile. And its unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in the fall, well over the survey's average rate of 5.8 percent.

Rounding out the top 10 most stressful cities, in order, were Miami; New Orleans; Las Vegas; New York; Portland; Mobile, Ala.; Stockton-Lodi, Calif; Detroit, and Dallas.

The surveyors also offered up the least stressful cities. Tri-city areas Albany-Schenectady-Troy in New York and Harrisburg-Lebanon-Carlisle in Pennsylvania tied for best. High on the list also were Orange County, Calif.; Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

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Calif. Woman Survives Losing All Her Skin

A San Diego woman whose entire skin peeled off after a rare reaction to a common drug has apparently made a miraculous recovery.

Sarah Yeargain developed the often-fatal condition after taking the antibiotic Bactrim, also known as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, for a nasal infection. She developed blisters and swelling on her face and within days, her skin was coming off "in sheets," the BBC reports.

Yeargain experienced a rare severe allergic reaction called toxic epidermal necrolysis, where the body's immune system malfunctions after it is exposed to a drug. She first noticed some minor swelling and discoloration in her face, then blistering on her lips and swelling on her eyes. Soon, her face, chest and arms were covered in blisters and skin all over her body began to fall off. Even the skin on her internal organs and the membranes covering her mouth, throat and eyes came away.

Doctors at the University of California Regional Burn Center in San Diego saved her life by covering her entire body with a skin substitute, called TransCyte. They also gave her drugs to prevent internal bleeding, and her own skin started to grow back.

Meredith Frank, a nurse in the burns unit, said the woman's recovery was a miracle. "With the magnitude of the skin loss she had, there was a divine hand in her recovery."

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U.S Could Suffer Another Monkeypox Outbreak

More monkeypox outbreaks could erupt in the United States if the virus managed to gain a foothold in native rodent populations during last year's outbreak, says a Stanford University study appearing in The Lancet.

There were 81 human cases of monkeypox reported in six states in 2003. There were no deaths.

It's believed the monkeypox virus, which can be fatal, was introduced into the U.S. by animals, mainly prairie dogs, sold as exotic pets, BBC News Online reports.

The Stanford scientists note that the virus is extremely contagious among rodents. That could mean trouble if native rats and mice were infected during last year's outbreak. If that's the case, that means there would now be a "reservoir" of the virus in the U.S., which could lead to future outbreaks of monkeypox in humans.

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