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Health Highlights: July 20, 2005

Fewer U.S. Women Having Abortions: Report Experts Again Dispute Vaccine-Autism Link Colleagues Seek Liver for Dying PR Exec Smoked Salmon Recalled Merck May Have Understated Vioxx Risks

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

Fewer U.S. Women Having Abortions: Report

The number of women in the United States having abortions continued its decade-long drop in 2002, falling to its lowest level since 1976, a new report finds.

According to the nonprofit Alan Guttmacher Institute, some 1.29 million women had abortions in 2002, down from 1.61 million in 1990, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Three years ago, there were 242 abortions for every 1,000 pregnancies that did not result in miscarriage. That figure was 245 in 2000 and 280 in 1990, the newspaper reported.

Experts aren't sure what's triggered the decline, the Post said, but possible factors include changes in contraceptive use and reliability, reduced access to abortion services, and changing ideas about family size and abortion.

The Guttmacher report said 47 percent of unintended pregnancies are aborted, the most common reason for having the procedure.

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Experts Again Dispute Vaccine-Autism Link

The Bush administration assembled a group of leading scientists on Tuesday in yet another attempt to quash public fears over a purported link between a mercury preservative once used in childhood vaccines and the mysteriously neurological malady called autism, the Associated Press reported.

One scientist with a 12-year-old autistic daughter joined U.S. officials in urging that the focus shift to finding the real culprit.

"We need a war on autism, not a war on childhood vaccines," said Dr. Peter Hotez of George Washington University. The microbiologist said he's sure that his daughter's condition had "absolutely nothing to do with vaccines she received," the AP quoted him as saying.

The preservative thimerosal had been used to preserve certain pharmaceuticals since the 1930s, the wire service said. Critics say studies that have found no connection between the preservative and autism are flawed.

Thimerosal is no longer used in most vaccines, although some flu inoculations still contain the preservative. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to speed its phase-out from flu vaccines, the AP said.

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Colleagues Seek Liver for Dying PR Exec

Two years ago, Shari Kurzrok was spearheading the public-relations push for the nation's largest-ever blood drive, for the American Red Cross.

Today she's fighting for her life.

The 31-year-old executive for Ogilvy Public Relations in New York City needs a liver transplant. Doctors say she'll die within days if she doesn't get one.

Kurzrok was admitted to New York University Hospital last weekend, and within 24 hours was told she needed a new liver to save her life. Her still-unexplained sudden illness has taken her family, friends, and doctors by surprise, colleagues say.

Kurzrok led the 345-city "Save-a-Life Tour," which collected 3.2 million pints of blood in 2003 and registered more than 38,000 new potential donors, a statement from Ogilvy said.

Blood is a factor in her plight too, since she needs a liver from someone who is Type A or Type O.

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Smoked Salmon Recalled

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recalled smoked salmon that was sold under the brand names Imperial Salmon House, Superior Brand Norwegian Cure and Golden Eagle Smoked Salmon because it may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The packages were produced on June 13, and have a shelf life of three to four months if maintained in an unopened frozen state, and four days if refrigerated. The salmon was sold in individual 2 to 4 lb. packages labeled: "Processed by Hickory House, Hialeah, FL 33016", "21555, Product of the USA", "keep frozen until ready to use."

The salmon was sold in Florida, Georgia, New York and Virginia, the FDA said.

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can be serious and sometimes cause fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

If you experience the symptoms listed above, you should contact your health care provider. No illnesses have been reported to date, the FDA said.

Consumers who purchased the salmon are urged to destroy it. Questions may be directed to the recalling firm, Golden Eagle Smoked Foods, Inc., DBA Hickory House, Hialeah, FL 33016 at (305) 512-5900.

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Merck May Have Understated Vioxx Risks

Merck and Co. seriously understated the cardiovascular risks of the now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx in a 2001 letter to doctors, lawyers for plaintiffs suing the drug company said Tuesday in the first Vioxx case to go to trial.

In that letter, Merck said only 0.5 percent of participants in the largest-ever clinical trial of the drug had experienced "cardiovascular events," The New York Times reported Wednesday. That would have meant only about 20 patients of 4,000 study participants had cardiovascular problems.

In fact, the newspaper reported, 14.6 percent of study participants (590 people) had cardiovascular problems while taking the drug, according to Merck's own report on the study to federal regulators. The newspaper said the 0.5 percent number reflected the percentage of patients who had had heart attacks, not "the total risk of cardiovascular problems generally."

Among the doctors who got the Merck letter was Dr. Brent Wallace, who had prescribed Vioxx to Robert Ernst. Ernst died in 2001 at age 59 after taking Vioxx for eight months, the Times said. His family is suing Merck, claiming Vioxx caused his sudden death. Merck contends Ernst died from an irregular heartbeat, and that there's no evidence that the drug caused the condition, the newspaper said.

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