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Health Highlights: July 29, 2005

Lethal Bird Flu Strain Found in Russia Bush Signs Patient Safety LegislationRobins Most Likely Carriers of West Nile, Study Says FDA Bans Use of Antibiotic in Poultry Frist Now Backs Embryonic Stem Cell Research Funding

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

Lethal Bird Flu Strain Found in Russia

Russian health investigators have identified the dangerous strain of bird flu that's swept Asia among fowl in Russia's Novosibirsk region, the Associated Press reported Friday.

No human infections have been reported in Russia, though the lethal H5N1 strain has killed about 60 people in Asia over the past two years. Russian officials said all of the dead or infected birds found in Russia have been incinerated, the AP reported.

Russia's chief epidemiologist speculated that the virus that's affected chicken, geese, ducks, and turkeys could have been introduced by migrating birds that rest on the Siberian region's lakes, the wire service said.

Separately, Vietnam announced Friday that two more people had died of bird flu, raising the country's human bird flu toll to 41 since 2003. Other human deaths have been recorded in Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.

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Bush Signs Patient Safety Legislation

Legislation creating a nationwide system for reporting and analyzing medical errors was signed into law Friday by President Bush.

The signing ended years of debate over whether to make the system mandatory or voluntary. The new law makes it voluntary for hospitals to confidentially report mistakes; such reports could not be used in malpractice suits, according to the Washington Post.

A 1999 report on medical errors from the National Institute of Medicine found that as many as 100,000 Americans die each year due to medical mistakes. At present, 23 states have systems for collecting reports of these errors, and all but one is mandatory, the Post said.

Hospitals and medical providers have long argued against mandatory reporting systems, saying voluntary ones would encourage more doctors and hospitals to participate, the newspaper reported.

"This law strikes the proper balance between confidentiality and the need to ensure responsibility throughout the health care system," the American Medical Association said in a statement praising the presidential bill signing.

Under the law, hospitals are encouraged to report their mistakes confidentially to groups known as patient safety organizations. These groups ultimately could contract with the facilities to analyze past problems and prevent future mistakes. The federal government, at a five-year cost of about $60 million, would develop the computer network and help coordinate the nationwide effort, the newspaper said.

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Robins Most Likely Carriers of West Nile, Study Says

The bird most often associated with the coming of spring may also be the most likely to carry the sometime-fatal West Nile Virus

The Associated Press that a DNA analysis of blood taken from the abdomens of 300 mosquitoes in Connecticut during the past three years indicated that at least 80 percent of the West Nile virus had come from the blood of robins. Before this analysis had been done, many scientists believed the crow was the primary carrier of the virus.

But the DNA study showed that only one percent of the West Nile virus found in the mosquitoes came from crows, the A.P. says.

Through July 15, 11 states had reported 25 cases of human West Nile virus-related illness, including one fatality, according to research released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The toll so far doesn't compare to last year at the same time, when there were 108 cases in about 10 states.

The Connecticut findings have been turned over to the CDC publication in the agency journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

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FDA Bans Use of Antibiotic in Poultry

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it would ban use of the antibiotic Baytril to treat infections in poultry, saying the medication was promoting a drug-resistant form of bacteria called Campylobacter.

The decision, announced by FDA Commissioner Lester M. Crawford, only affects the Bayer Corp. drug's use in poultry, the agency said in a prepared statement. Campylobacter is the leading bacterial cause of food poisoning in the United States.

The move, the first withdrawal of a veterinary drug on the basis of antibiotic resistance concerns, was immediately applauded by Consumers Union as an important step in protecting public health.

"FDA's strong action ... will help combat bacterial resistance to this important drug and preserve its ability to treat tens of thousands of Americans sickened each year by contaminated poultry," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, in a prepared statement.

HealthDay reported in 2000, when the FDA first proposed banning the drug for treating poultry, that almost 18 percent of a common Campylobacter strain that infects people were immune to antibiotics in the same class as Baytril.

Baytril (enrofloxacin) belongs to a class of animal antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, which chicken and turkey farmers have used since 1995. It is in the same class as Cipro, a popular drug used in humans.

People with compromised immune systems, including the elderly, the very young, and people with chronic illness, are particularly susceptible to Campylobacter infection, the FDA said. Complications can include arthritis and, more rarely, bloodstream infections.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's center for veterinary medicine, said Baytril will remain approved for use in infections in dogs and cats and for respiratory disease in cattle, the Associated Press reported.

Bayer, which in 2000 resisted FDA efforts to limit the drug's use, has 60 days to appeal the FDA's decision, the agency said.

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Frist Now Backs Embryonic Stem Cell Research Funding

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist has changed his mind and is now supporting a bill to expand U.S. government financing for embryonic stem cell research, The New York Times reported.

Last month, Frist said he did not back the proposal. But in a Senate speech Friday morning, Frist said, "While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases. Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified."

Frist's about-face is a break with President Bush and could move the bill closer to passage. However, the White House has said it would veto the bill.

Frist said that he supports the bill even though he has reservations about changing Bush's policy on embryonic stem cell funding, which imposes severe restrictions on providing taxpayer dollars for the research, The Times reported.

Supporters of the bill say that Frist's move could have a huge impact on the political debate over funding of embryonic stem cell research.

"This is critically important. The Senate majority leader, who is also a physician, is confirming the real potential of embryonic stem cell research and the need to expand the policy," Larry Soler, a lobbyist for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, told The Times.

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