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Health Highlights: Jan. 7, 2004

Pentagon Can Resume Mandatory Anthrax Shots SARS Patient Denies Eating Suspect Cat HMO to Routinely Screen for Cervical Cancer CDC Says Flu Season Still Hasn't Peaked McDonald's Launches Test of Atkins-Like Choices Cold Virus May Fight Skin Cancer

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

Pentagon Can Resume Mandatory Anthrax Shots

A federal judge on Wednesday lifted his order banning the Pentagon from forcing military personnel to receive an anthrax shot against their will.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller told the Associated Press that U.S. District Judge Emmitt Sullivan delivered his order from the bench in Washington, D.C. He had halted the shots in a Dec. 22 ruling.

The lift enables the Pentagon to resume its anthrax vaccination program except for the six plaintiffs who originally filed the lawsuit, according to the AP. The military has not said whether it intends to continue the vaccinations, the wire service reported.

Sullivan said in his original ruling that military personnel should not be used as "guinea pigs" for what he called an experimental vaccine. He said the vaccine was not proven to be effective against inhalation anthrax.

The U.S. government has maintained for years that the vaccine is not experimental. That was reinforced on Dec. 30, when the Food and Drug Administration said again that anthrax shots are safe and effective. The Justice Department, citing the FDA determination, asked Sullivan to lift his order, according to the AP.

Some 900,000 personnel have received the shot since 1998, but hundreds have also been punished for refusing, the AP reports.

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SARS Patient Denies Eating Suspect Cat

As China began rounding up thousands of civet cats that have been linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the first patient to have come down with the disease this season said he hadn't come into contact with the animals.

The BBC reports that the patient, a 32-year-old television producer in Guangdong province, said that he hadn't eaten the weasel-like cat, which is often sold in markets and is considered a delicacy in parts of China.

The patient, identified only by his surname Mr. Luo, expects to leave the hospital Thursday. In an interview with China's official Xinhua news agency, the patient said he had never even seen a civet cat, let alone eat one, according to the BBC.

The man said his only contact with an animal before falling ill was catching a baby mouse in his bathtub by using chopsticks. He described himself as an environmentalist who opposes killing creatures, so he threw the mouse out a window.

In response to the slaughter of the civet cats, the World Health Organization says there's no definitive connection between the animals and SARS in humans. The WHO is concerned the mass slaughter could eradicate important evidence about the origins of SARS and may even spread the virus.

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HMO to Routinely Screen for Cervical Cancer

Kaiser Permanente will become the first health care organization in the country to begin routinely screen women for cervical cancer by using a newly approved test for a virus commonly linked to the disease.

The test looks for the DNA presence of human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been associated with almost all cases of cervical cancer. The test will be given to all women over 30 in Kaiser Permanente's Northern California region, along with a Pap smear, during routine checkups, the company announced Wednesday.

"Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers we know how to prevent," Dr. Walter Kinney, a gynecologist with Kaiser, said in a statement. "This enhanced testing enables us to more accurately predict which women are at risk of cervical cancer and which women can be spared unnecessary invasive procedures."

Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer in women, and one that can be easily treated if caught early. HPV, a sexually transmitted virus, is found in 99.7 percent of cervical cancer cases.

CDC Says Flu Season Still Hasn't Peaked

U.S. health officials don't believe the already harsh flu season has reached its peak.

Forty-two states still report widespread flu activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

"If you look at overall data from nationwide surveillance, it doesn't look like it's peaked yet," CDC flu expert Dr. Scott Harper tells the Associated Press.

This year's season began unusually early, and seems to have hit children particularly hard. The CDC's most current figures show 42 child deaths from flu so far this season -- about half of them under age 5. An average of 92 children die from the virus during a typical season, the CDC says.

As proof that the nationwide outbreak may not be ebbing, a new federal survey of 122 cities shows flu and pneumonia combined for 9 percent of all deaths last week. That's up from 7.8 percent the prior week, the AP reports.

On a positive note, five states are no longer reporting widespread flu activity: Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Washington state, and West Virginia, according to the CDC.

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McDonald's Launches Test of Atkins-Like Suggestions

Some 650 McDonald's restaurants in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have begun displaying posters and brochures advertising how the company's menu can meld with dieters on low-carbohydrate, low-fat regimens, The New York Times reports.

Consumers are advised to remove buns and some condiments to cut the carbs, though the company says the costs of these foods won't change. People on an Atkins-like diet, as another example, are encouraged to eat a double order of scrambled eggs for breakfast, the Times reports.

In other regions of the country, McDonald's outlets in some parts of California are promoting salads and low-fat sandwiches, while Houston-area restaurants are touting low-fat menu items and exercise suggestions, the newspaper says.

The nation's biggest fast-food chain isn't the only one jumping on the healthier diet bandwagon. In late December, Subway restaurants began offering a pair of Atkins-sanctioned, low-carb wraps. And the Times reports that Burger King plans to announce a low-fat, low-carb menu sometime next week.

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Cold Virus May Fight Skin Cancer: Study

The common cold virus appears to stymie a deadly form of skin cancer, according to researchers at Australia's University of Newcastle.

Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world, CNN reports. But a team led by Professor Darren Shafren has found that the common cold virus (medically called the coxsackievirus) appears to destroy malignant melanoma cells. He calls his studies on human and animal cells, reported in the January edition of Clinical Cancer Research, "a significant breakthrough" that he hopes to replicate in human trials.

Shafren says the cold viruses injected into the melanoma cells were not manufactured or genetically altered.

Melanoma kills about 1,000 Australians a year, CNN reports.

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