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Health Highlights: Jan. 3, 2004

Strong Indication China Has SARS CaseLivestock Tracking System May Take Years to DevelopVA Shortens Wait for Non-Emergency Appointments N.Y. to Mandate Fire-Safe Cigarettes Detroit Claims Dubious Title of Fattest U.S. City

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

Strong Indication China Has SARS Case

Although tests have yet to confirm it, Chinese authorities strongly indicated Friday that a 32-year-old television producer has severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The BBC reports that China's official news agency says that gene sequencing of the virus points to the first case in that nation since July. "There is a possibility that the patient may have contracted the SARS... virus," the BBC quotes the agency, Xinhua, as saying.

The patient is being monitored via closed circuit television in Guangdong province, where the epidemic began in late 2002. The virus has since claimed 774 lives.

The World Health Organization said that the patient "has suffered from pneumonia and displayed signs and symptoms that could fit the profile of SARS," according to the BBC. "However, such signs and symptoms could be caused by a large number of other infectious diseases."

On Tuesday, medical researcher in Taiwan who came down with SARS in a lab accident was released from the hospital after doctors determined that he posed no further threat of infecting anyone, the BBC says.

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Livestock Tracking System May Take Years to Develop

As U.S. government workers continue to track down cattle that may have come from the same herd as the one infected with mad cow disease, an official has told the New York Times that a national tracking system may take "a year or two" to phase in.

It became evident during the past two weeks that the U.S. needed to develop a better and more systemized way to trace livestock, because it took some time to discover where the Washington State dairy cow had originated. According to the Times, a new tracking system would be able to find cattle involved or exposed to mad cow disease within 48 hours of discovery.

"These timelines are very aggressive, and it will be a huge task to get the system in place and operational to the extent we'd like it," Scott Stuart, president of the National Livestock Producers Association, a group in Colorado Springs, told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, investigators say they have tracked nine cows to a herd that included one that was infected with mad cow disease in December.

The Washington Post reports that the animals were exported from a farm in Alberta, Canada, to one in Washington state. Finding these animals is critical because of concerns that the animals may have eaten that same contaminated feed that sickened the Holstein diagnosed with mad cow disease.

According to the Post, the farm in Mabton, Wash., has quarantined 4,000 cattle since the one cow was infected. A case of mad cow disease was reported in Alberta earlier in 2003, raising concerns that both cases may be tied to the same source of contaminated feed.

The discovery came a day after the United States Department of Agriculture announced that the United States banned "downer" cows, those that can no longer walk, from the food supply.

There was also some hopeful news about whether any other infected meat had entered the marketplace. A Department of Agriculture spokesperson told the Times that while it was "theoretically possible" that some of the missing cows had already entered the food supply, the government considered it unlikely. The suspected herd was all dairy cows, and those animals are not slaughtered until they stop giving milk, which can last for many years.

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VA Shortens Wait for Non-Emergency Appointments

The long waiting lines at VA hospitals may soon be over for some veterans.

The Associated Press reports that veterans who need medical help because of health problems resulting from their military service are going to the front of the line for non-emergency appointments.

These new rules from the Department of Veterans Affairs are a follow-up to an October announcement by VA Secretary Anthony Principi that priority appointements would be given to veterans with 50 percent disabality or more. Until Principi established the policy, these veterans were not always given priority treatment.

According to the wire service, the new rule changes a policy in which veterans with war injuries or certain cancers related to Agent Orange exposure and who are not severely disabled, waited with other veterans for appointments.

"If a veteran cannot see a doctor in a timely manner, then we have failed that veteran," Principi told the A.P. The wire service reported that the following procedures would be in effect:

  • Appointments for such veterans must be scheduled within 30 days of the request.
  • When an appointment is unavailable, the VA must arrange for care at another VA facility or contract for out for it.
  • Any veteran needing emergency care still will be treated immediately.

Some veterans had been waiting as long as two years for a non-emergency VA appointment, the wire service said.

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N.Y. to Mandate Fire-Safe Cigarettes

In an attempt to reduce a common source of fatal fires, New York will become the first state in the nation to mandate that cigarettes be made of paper that extinguishes itself.

Supporters of the legislation hope that the move will mark the beginning of a global trend in the marketing of safer cigarettes.

The Associated Press reports that the regulations, which will take effect by summer, will call for cigarettes to be rolled in banded paper. The wire service calls the bands "speed bumps" that stop the burning of the paper when a cigarette isn't puffed on.

Philip Morris began making the fire-safe cigarettes under its Merit brand four years ago, according to the AP.

"If New York goes ahead, it will drive a national debate because tobacco companies are not going to make one set of cigarettes for New York and one for the rest of the U.S.," Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group told the AP. "And if the U.S. sets standards, those will be standards for the entire globe."

Each year, fires started by cigarettes kill 900 people and injure 2,500 in the United States, according to the American Burn Association.

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Detroit Claims Dubious Title of Fattest U.S. City

After three years at the top, Houston has finally shed its dubious title of the fattest city in the United States, according to the sixth annual Men's Fitness list. Detroit now holds the top spot, and Houston is now second.

Although Houston is proud to have lost that title, Texas has nothing to brag about, according to the Houston Chronicle. Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio rose significantly on the magazine's list of fattest U.S. cities, the newspaper reports.

The magazine looks at the country's 50 largest cities and assesses various measures, including air quality, climate, commute time, amount of TV watched, and the number of fast food joints, health clubs, and sporting goods stores. Detroit moved into the top spot because of its cold winters and a rise in television viewing.

Embarrassed Houston officials began a program to get city residents to lose weight, and are happy to lose the distinction. "This is one championship title I don't mind giving up to another city," City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado told the Chronicle. "Congratulations, Detroit."

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