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Health Highlights: July 15, 2005

FDA Investigating Pain Patch Deaths Chiron Cites Flu Vaccine Problems in Europe Indonesia Says Bird Flu Cases May Have Passed Between People U.S. Plans Resumption of Canadian Cattle Imports Fetuses Exposed to Hundreds of Chemicals: Study Washing Hands With Soap Saves Children's Lives

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

FDA Investigating Pain Patch Deaths

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating 120 deaths among users of patches that emit the painkiller fentanyl. The agency also warned patients Friday to be sure to use the potent narcotic properly to avoid accidental overdose, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA is reviewing whether any of the deaths were related to inappropriate use of the painkiller or factors related to the product's quality.

Fentanyl is a strong narcotic painkiller that could cause death from overdose if the product's directions aren't strictly followed, the agency said in issuing Friday's public health advisory. The patch is available under the brand name Duragesic, and as a generic version.

The agency said Fentanyl skin patches should be used only when chronic pain isn't controlled with shorter-acting painkillers, and should not be used to treat short-term pain, pain that isn't constant, or for post-surgical pain.

The agency also reminded users to properly dispose of used, unneeded or defective patches by folding the sticky sides together and flushing them down the toilet, to prevent possible abuse by children.

Friday's warning followed by two days the FDA's ban on sales of the narcotic painkiller Palladone, citing the potential for deadly reactions if the drug was used with alcohol.

In a separate action, a healthcare accrediting group is warning about the potential misuse of a cancer drug the could kill or permanently paralyze patients.

The drug vincristine is supposed to be injected into a vein, but on rare occasions has been added to spinal catheters used by leukemia and lymphoma patients, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations said.

The group noted some 49 cases of vincristine mix-ups worldwide since 1968, killing about 90 percent of these patients, the Associated Press reported.

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Chiron Cites Flu Vaccine Problems in Europe

Chiron Corp., the U.S. maker of flu vaccine whose quality-control problems led to widespread shortages in the United States last year, now says it is cutting supplies to Europe because of tainted vaccine produced at a German plant.

The company, citing manufacturing problems at its Marburg, Germany, facility, said it will only make 4 million of 12 million doses it had expected to produce for sale in Germany and England, the Associated Press reported.

The Marburg difficulties are reminiscent of contamination problems that led the British government to shut a Chiron plant in Liverpool last fall that was to have produced about half of the 100 million doses of flu vaccine ordered by the United States for the 2004-2005 season. That closure led to significant shortages in the United States for several months. The British plant was allowed to reopen in March.

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Indonesia Says Bird Flu Cases May Have Passed Between People

An Indonesian man and his two daughters have died of suspected bird flu, and there's no evidence that they had contact with poultry, raising the possibility of person-to-person transmission, authorities told the Associated Press on Friday.

The victims are a 38-year-old man and his 9- and 1-year-old daughters, the wire service said. Residents of a Jakarta suburb, they all died within 10 days of each other, Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said.

The government is awaiting tests to confirm that they all contracted the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu, she added.

Bird flu has killed at least 51 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia over the past two years, the AP said. Most cases have involved bird-to-human transmission. But in January, HealthDay cited cases of likely person-to-person transmission between an 11-year-old girl in Thailand and her mother and aunt.

World health authorities have long warned of a scenario involving a strain of bird flu combining with a human form of the disease, sparking a global pandemic that would be resistant to human flu vaccines.

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U.S. Plans Resumption of Canadian Cattle Imports

The United States is "immediately taking steps" to resume imports of Canadian cattle following Thursday's federal appeals court ruling overturning an injunction that blocked the shipments over concerns about mad cow disease, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Friday.

The court on Thursday lifted the injunction that was put in place in early March. At that time, a federal judge in Montana said the Agriculture Department was moving too fast to resume imports of cattle from Canada, which has had three confirmed cases of mad cow disease since 2003.

The federal appeals court decision was made after the court was told by U.S. agriculture officials that Canadian cattle posed no mad cow disease threat to humans, The New York Times reported.

The court did not explain its reasons for lifting the injunction but said it would make its reasons known soon.

The ban on Canadian cattle imports has resulted in a shortage of animals to slaughter at American beef packing companies. That has resulted in lower profits at the largest packing companies and the closure of some smaller packing houses, The Times reported.

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Fetuses Exposed to Hundreds of Chemicals: Study

Fetuses in the womb are not protected from dangerous chemicals that their mothers are exposed to, suggests a study sponsored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Researchers analyzed umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns and found that the blood contained 200 chemicals that can cause brain damage, birth defects, cancer and other health problems, the Associated Press reported.

"This is conclusive evidence that babies are being exposed to hundreds of industrial chemicals throughout pregnancy. The placenta isn't a magic shield," EWG scientist Sonya Lunder said at a press conference Thursday in San Francisco.

She and other health advocates urged California politicians to pass legislation requiring the state to create the nation's first "biomonitoring" program to gather data on chemicals found in people's blood, the AP reported.

Chemicals are often found in people's blood or urine at levels that don't cause or increase the risk of disease, the American Chemistry Council, which represents major U.S. chemical makers, said in a prepared statement.

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Washing Hands With Soap Saves Children's Lives

Handwashing with soap can be a lifesaver, says a study that found washing hands with soap cut pneumonia-related infections in children under age 5 by more than 50 percent.

Pneumonia is the leading killer of children worldwide. The study, published in the July 16 issue of the journal The Lancet, was conducted in Pakistan by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Proctor & Gamble Co.

The study also found that handwashing with soap significantly reduced the number of diarrheal infections, the second leading cause of death in children under age 5. Children who bathed daily with soap showed a 47 percent reduction in the prevalence of the skin infection impetigo.

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