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Health Highlights: Jan. 9, 2005

Calif. Lifts All Flu Shot Restrictions Virus Sickens 116 Aboard Cruise Ship Dental Floss Better Than Mouthwash, Judge Rules FDA Approves New Form of Breast Cancer Drug Canada Mad Cow Probe Widens

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

Calif. Lifts All Flu Shot Restrictions

Facing a huge surplus of unused influenza vaccine, California health authorities have lifted all restrictions on flu shots.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the state Department of Health Services has more than 400,000 adult doses of vaccine and 265,000 doses formulated for children available. Individual physicians may order the vaccine from the state and administer shots to any patient.

State Public Health Officer Dr. Richard J. Jackson lifted all the restrictions imposed in October after half the nation's flu vaccine supply was lost to contamination problems at an English factory owned by Chiron Corp. of Emeryville.

"It is not too late to get a flu shot," said Jackson. "Flu season has not yet reached its peak in California, and there is still plenty of time to get vaccinated."

The transformation from flu shot shortage to flu shot glut took place slowly, as it became apparent that there would be no repeat of the early influenza season that occurred one year ago. This year, although the same strain of influenza, A-Fujian, is predominant in U.S. cases so far this year, flu activity tracked by epidemiologists has been low.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that influenza activity is widespread only in New York and Vermont, with a dozen other states, mostly on the East Coast, reporting regional outbreaks.

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Virus Sickens 116 Aboard Cruise Ship

Almost 120 passengers and crew members were sickened by a stomach virus aboard a cruise ship that returned to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Saturday after five days in the Caribbean.

The outbreak of a Norwalk-type virus aboard Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas sickened 108 passengers and eight crew members, company spokesman Michael Sheehan told the Associated Press. It was traced to a man who had symptoms two days before boarding the ship Monday, he said.

A special cleaning of the 1,950-passenger ship was expected to delay its next scheduled departure for a few hours, officials said.

Symptoms of Norwalk-like viruses include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and last up to 48 hours. No special medical treatment is required.

Norwalk-like affect 23 million Americans a year and were blamed for a rash of cruise ship illnesses more than a year ago that prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate several lines. In September, 84 passengers aboard a cruise ship from Alaska fell ill with a Norwalk-like virus.

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Dental Floss Better Than Mouthwash, Judge Rules

Calling a Listerine print and TV ad campaign false, misleading and a public health risk, a federal judge has ruled that mouthwash is no substitute for dental floss.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said in a written ruling made public Friday in New York that he expected to order Pfizer Inc. as early as Monday to stop claiming that its product, Listerine, is as effective as floss at reducing plaque and gingivitis between teeth.

The ruling came after McNeil-PPC Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, filed a lawsuit saying that false claims in an advertising campaign that began last June posed an unfair threat against its sales of dental floss, the Associated Press reported.

"Dentists and hygienists have been telling their patients for decades to floss daily," the judge wrote. "They have been doing so for good reason. The benefits of flossing are real -- they are not a 'myth.' Pfizer's implicit message that Listerine can replace floss is false and misleading."

The judge said he found it "highly troubling" that Pfizer took the position in the lawsuit that floss can be replaced by Listerine even though it had told dental professionals for two years that it was not suggesting that was the case, AP reported.

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FDA Approves New Form of Breast Cancer Drug

A new form of the widely used cancer drug Taxol that is easier to administer and avoids some side effects has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The drug, Abraxane, was approved for women with advanced breast cancer who have not responded to chemotherapy, the drug's marketer, American Pharmaceutical Partners, announced late Friday. An F.D.A. spokeswoman confirmed the approval but had no other comment, The New York Times reported.

Taxol, sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb and known generically as paclitaxel, has to be dissolved in a toxic solvent and must be given through special intravenous tubes because the solvent can leach the plastic off the tubes normally used to deliver chemotherapy. The drug causes some side effects, including severe allergic reactions. To avoid the reactions, patients are usually given steroids and antihistamines in advance, and those drugs carry their own side effects.

Abraxane consists of microscopic particles of paclitaxel bound to albumin, a common protein in the blood. It can be given in greater doses before the side effects become intolerable and it does away with the need for the toxic solvent and the steroids and antihistamines.

"That's hands-down an improvement" in terms of how the drug is administered, Dr. Melody A. Cobleigh, director of the comprehensive breast center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told the Times. But she added, "As far as whether it's going to be an advance in terms of curing breast cancer, I think we'll have to wait for further trials."

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Canada Mad Cow Probe Widens

Canadian officials said Friday that cattle potentially infected with mad cow disease may have been eaten by humans, but stressed the chance of contracting a potentially fatal illness is extremely low.

The officials also said that one cow in the suspect herd on an Alberta farm may have been shipped to the United States.

CBC reported that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was tracking 141 cattle from the farm where an 8-year-old dairy cow was confirmed on Jan. 2 to have the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Some of these cows may have been made into animal or human food, agency spokesman Dr. Gary Little told a news conference in Ottawa.

But he and other officials downplayed the risk to consumers, even though BSE can cause the human disease of Creutzfeldt-Jakob that killed at least 40 people in Britain in the 1990s.

Little said investigators from his agency, with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were tracking a total of 93 dairy and 48 beef cattle from the farm to see whether the animals could have been exposed. They have quarantined nine dairy cattle born on the farm a year before and a year after the infected animal was delivered in October 1996 and plan to begin killing and testing the animals for BSE next week. He said 28 of the dairy cows are unaccounted for.

U.S. Senators Conrad Burns of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, along with Representative Henry Waxman, of California, urged the Agriculture Department to delay its decision about reopening the border to Canadian cattle on March 7, according to the Bloomberg news service.

The border has been shut since since May 2003 when the first case of BSE was confirmed in a dairy cow from an Alberta farm. The only known U.S. case was in a dairy animal found in Washington state in December 2003 and later traced to Canada.

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