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Health Highlights: Jan. 13, 2004

U.S. Bans Importation of Civets to Protect Against SARS Animal Viruses May Pose Major Human Health Threat Bird Flu Confirmed in 3 Vietnam Deaths Catholic Cardinal Says Condoms OK to Protect Against HIV Therapy Better Than Light Boxes for Seasonal Disorder: Study U.S. Blood Supplies Run Dangerously Low

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

U.S. Bans Importation of Civets to Protect Against SARS

The United States announced Tuesday an immediate embargo on the importation of civets to the United States. The small animals have been identified as a possible link to SARS transmission in China.

"Public health experts are concerned that civets may transmit SARS to humans, who may then pass it on to other people," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said. "This embargo will help us protect the American public and prevent introduction of SARS in the United States."

The embargo applies to dead and live civets as well as civet products, and will remain in place indefinitely.

China, meanwhile, is reporting mixed news on its handful of suspected SARS cases.

On one hand, the government reportedly has confirmed that a 20-year-old waitress who worked at an eatery where civet cat had been served does, indeed, have SARS. Hong Kong television said the woman, hospitalized in Guangzhou since the end of December, is the country's second confirmed case in the past month. Civet is a Chinese delicacy.

By contrast, Beijing officials are denying that the most recent suspected case, first reported Monday, also has the disease. The official Xinhua New Agency said the man, who lives in the southern city of Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong, instead has bacterial pneumonia.

The recent flurry of confirmed and suspected cases of SARS has World Health Organization officials warning against hasty overreaction to the possibility of a second SARS epidemic. Health officials in China and other potential hotspots should be careful to weed out cases of cold and flu, or risk over-taxing their fragile medical systems, WHO spokesman Bob Dietz told the Associated Press.

"No one wants to overdiagnose, which is just as dangerous as underdiagnosing in terms of overloading the health care system," he said.

SARS first emerged in the Chinese province of Guangdong in late 2002, sickening more than 8,000 people worldwide and killing 774 before subsiding last June.


Animal Viruses May Pose Major Human Health Threat

Animal disease viruses that break through the species barrier and infect humans may be the largest threat to human health in coming years, according to experts at a Royal Society conference in London, England.

One reason animal diseases pose such a potential threat to humans is that scientists know so little about them, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Malik Peiris told the conference, BBC News Online reports.

The microbiologist said more needs to be learned about what he referred to as the "animal-human interface." Peiris also suggested there could be global health havoc if a new flu pandemic, something considered inevitable by many experts, combines with an animal virus.


Bird Flu Confirmed in 3 Vietnam Deaths

The World Health Organization confirmed Tuesday that three people in Vietnam had died of avian influenza, also known as bird flu.

The cause of death for the two children and one adult was confirmed by lab tests, CBC News Online reports.

The three victims were among 14 people in and around Hanoi who recently developed respiratory illnesses. Twelve of those people died.

There's no proof that all the cases were caused by bird flu. There's also no evidence bird flu is being passed between people in Vietnam, the WHO says.

In the three confirmed cases, the deceased all had direct contact with chickens or poultry products. None of the health workers who treated the three patients has shown any symptoms of respiratory illness.

Six people in Hong Kong died of bird flu in 1997 and 1998.


Catholic Cardinal Says Condoms OK to Protect Against HIV

A leading Catholic cardinal says he supports condom use if one partner in a relationship has HIV, BBC News Online reports.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium said on Dutch television that there is a moral difference between using condoms to prevent death and using them to prevent conception, the news service says.

He said sex with an HIV-positive person should be avoided.

"But if it should take place, the person must use a condom in order not to disobey the commandment condemning murder, in addition to breaking the commandment which forbids adultery," Danneels said.

The Vatican opposes all forms of artificial birth control, including condoms. Critics say this policy hinders efforts to control the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.


Therapy Better Than Light Boxes for Seasonal Disorder: Study

Cognitive behavioral training may be more effective than standard treatment with light therapy in treating people with seasonal effective disorder (SAD), according to new research reported by the Washington Post.

SAD is triggered by decreased exposure to the sun during the shorter days of winter. Light therapy involves people sitting in front of a box that emits certain frequencies of light for at least an hour a day. But about half of patients don't respond to the treatment, and relapse is common, the newspaper reports.

These unhappy conclusions led researcher Kelly Rohan, assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, to wonder if people with SAD might fare better with cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a form of talk therapy in which patients are taught to identify and change the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to psychological problems -- including symptoms like anxiety and depression.

Rohan found that CBT alone was more effective than light therapy alone, and that 80 percent of study participants "responded completely" when the two were combined, the Post reports. And rates of relapse were dramatically lower among people who had CBT, the newspaper adds.


U.S. Blood Supplies Run Dangerously Low

Blood supplies have fallen to critically low levels throughout much of the United States, prompting the nation's blood banks to appeal for immediate donations.

The national inventory levels have fallen well below a safe and adequate supply. Certain vital blood types are nearing depletion, and in some parts of the country elective surgeries are being postponed or cancelled, says the American Association of Blood Banks, America's Blood Centers and the American Red Cross.

The agencies say blood supplies traditionally run low in January, due to the holidays, travel schedules, bad weather and sickness.

People are asked to contact their local blood centers to make an appointment to donate. To donate blood, an individual must be healthy, at least 17 years old, weigh 110 pounds or more, and meet other donor requirements.

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