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Health Highlights: Jan. 17, 2005

FDA Approves Longer-Lasting Bacterial Meningitis Vaccine British Doctors to Explore Migraines' Link to Heart Defect Eye Test Could Detect ADHD in Children Childhood Cancer Linked to Pollution Exposure in Womb Romanian Is World's Oldest Woman to Give Birth Tsunamis Take Huge Psychological Toll, Experts Report U.S. Regulators to Vote Again on Morning-After Pill

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

FDA Approves Longer-Lasting Bacterial Meningitis Vaccine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a longer-lasting vaccine for meningitis, an often fatal bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord.

Sanofi Pasteur's Menactra was approved to prevent meningococcal infection among people aged 11 to 55. It's meant to last longer than the firm's existing meningitis vaccine, which lasts from three to five years.

While symptoms of the disease can mimic the flu, its effects are often more deadly and typically strike faster. Seemingly healthy people can die from a meningitis infection in 48 hours or less, the company said in a statement. Those who survive can be left with disabilities that include hearing loss, memory loss and brain damage.

The infection often spreads rapidly in confined living quarters, like those of a college dormitory. Teens and young adults account for nearly 30 percent of cases in the United States, and death rates are five times higher among 15- to 24-year-olds than younger people.

Up to 3,000 Americans get meningitis each year. The strain targeted by the vaccine kills about 10 percent of those infected, Sanofi Pasteur said.

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British Doctors to Explore Migraines' Link to Heart Defect

New research by British doctors will examine whether migraine headaches are linked to a common heart defect, BBC News reported.

An estimated 25 percent of people have a valve-like hole -- which can be closed using keyhole surgery -- but it is twice as common among a type of migraine sufferer. The defect, called a patent foramen ovale (PFO), often creates no symptoms, the BBC said.

The study, to be done by doctors at Kings College Hospital in London and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, will see if correcting the hole cures migraines. The theory is that closing the hole will make sure that blood pumping through the heart is always filtered through the lungs before entering the brain, thereby removing chemicals thought to play a role in causing migraines, the news service said.

The operation, performed under a light general anesthetic, takes less than one hour, the BBC said.

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Eye Test Could Detect ADHD in Children

British researchers say they've discovered a 10-minute eye test that could detect attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, the Herald newspaper reported Monday.

The Pavlidis test, developed at London's Brunel University, requires that children follow a spot of light on a computer screen with their eyes. It is considered more reliable than the subjective questionnaires traditionally used to diagnose the disorder, the newspaper said.

Children with ADHD have been found to have a more erratic pattern of eye movement. In trials of the new test, it was found to correctly identify the disorder in 93 percent of cases, the Herald said.

Some experts estimate as many as 7 percent of school-age children have ADHD, with symptoms including lack of concentration, restlessness, and hyperactivity, the newspaper said.

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Childhood Cancer Linked to Pollution Exposure in Womb

Prenatal exposure to environmental pollution could increase a child's risk of cancer, scientists at England's University of Birmingham concluded from new research.

However, several cancer experts cited by BBC News Online were quick to criticize the study's findings.

Birmingham Professor George Knox analyzed chemical emissions maps in the United Kingdom, then compared data about children under age 16 who had died from cancer between 1966 and 1980.

Children born within a 1-kilometer radius of an emission "hotspot" were two to four times more likely to die of cancer before age 16, compared to other children, Knox found. Chemicals that carried that highest risks included butadiene and carbon monoxide, two common byproducts of motor vehicle exhaust, the BBC said.

Knox's findings were published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. A spokeswoman for Britain's Leukemia Research Fund was sharply critical of the researcher's conclusions, alleging that he used 2001 emissions data and compared them to birth records from up to 35 years earlier, the BBC said.

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Romanian Is World's Oldest Woman to Give Birth

At age 66, Adriana Illiescu is the oldest known woman to give birth to a live infant, the Associated Press reported.

Romanian doctors in Bucharest said Illiescu, who was artificially inseminated, delivered a daughter by cesarean section on Sunday. The child's twin sister was stillborn.

Surviving twin Eliza Maria was born six weeks prematurely, weighing just 3.19 pounds. She's reported to be in intensive care but breathing on her own, the wire service said.

Romania has no law dictating a maximum age for artificial insemination, the AP reported. The Guinness Book of Records lists the prior record holders as two 63-year-old women, one from Italy, the other from California.

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Tsunamis Take Huge Psychological Toll, Experts Report

The devastating southern Asia tsunamis that killed more than 162,000 people last month and left survivors prone to potentially deadly epidemics have created another severe health problem -- psychological trauma.

Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, European health ministers urged governments to be mindful of the emotional scars caused by the disaster. Children are particularly vulnerable, the Associated Press reported.

"The trauma for so many millions of children is a first. After World War II, there has not been such a trauma," said Marc Danzon, European regional director of the U.N.'s World Health Organization. "We are confronted by something that is extremely demanding, and I'm not sure that at this moment we are equipped to face the problem," he told the news service. "But we will do our best."

The ministers released a 12-page mental health plan that also recommends "professional help and assurances" for people in crises, including natural disasters. Asian officials said up to three-quarters of local health personnel could not work because of depression caused by the tsunamis' destruction, the AP said.

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U.S. Regulators to Vote Again on Morning-After Pill

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could decide this week whether to make the emergency contraception pill known as Plan B available without a prescription to women 16 and older.

Plan B can reduce the chance of pregnancy by up to 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of intercourse, although it's more effective if taken soon after sex, the Associated Press reported.

Backers of the contraceptive say it's a safe way to prevent thousands of unwanted pregnancies, as well as countless abortions. If the pill were available over-the-counter, it would offer women protection over a weekend or when it is difficult to obtain a prescription.

Opponents contend the pill would encourage women -- particularly teenagers -- to engage in risky sex.

Last May, the FDA rejected an initial request by the pill's maker, Barr Laboratories of Pomona, N.Y., to make the drug over-the-counter. The company is now proposing that drug stores check customers' ages to be sure they're at least 16.

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