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Health Highlights: June 23, 2004

U.S. on Lookout for Rift Valley Fever U.S. Toxic Chemical Emissions Increase Mary-Kate Olsen Checks Into Rehab Center WHO Warns Against Unrestricted Alternative Medicine Use Surge in Polio Cases Reported in Africa U.S. Response to Mad Cow Criticized

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

U.S. on Lookout for Rift Valley Fever

U.S. health officials want people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of Rift Valley fever, a mosquito-borne disease that's more deadly than West Nile virus.

Rift Valley fever, which originated in Africa, is not present in the United States. But health officials fear it could become permanently established in the U.S. if it does enter the country, the Associated Press reported.

"This is not a disease that occurs here now, but we want to make sure people are aware of the signs and symptoms. The medical and public health community need to be mindful of it," Dr. Thomas Ksiazek, chief of the special pathogens branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the AP.

Most people with Rift Valley fever develop flu-like symptoms, although some may develop serious illnesses such as kidney or liver disease.

In previous outbreaks, the death rate was about 14 percent for people seriously ill with Rift Valley fever. The death rate is about 10 percent for those seriously ill with West Nile virus.

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U.S. Toxic Chemical Emissions Increase

The amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment in the United States increased by 5 percent in 2002 over the previous year, says an annual Environmental Protection Agency report released Tuesday.

That's the first time since 1997 that there was an increase in reported toxic emissions. In 2001, toxic emissions declined by 16 percent from the previous year, the Toxic Release Inventory report said.

It said that in 2002, releases of lead increased 3.2 percent and releases of mercury climbed 10 percent. Dioxin emissions dropped by 5 percent.

An EPA spokeswoman said that much of the 2002 increase was caused by a copper smelting facility in Arizona that closed and had to dispose of large amounts of waste material, the Washington Post reported.

In related news, two environmental groups released a study Tuesday that charged that polluters in the U.S. were releasing four to five times more toxic material than they reported to the EPA.

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Mary-Kate Olsen Checks Into Rehab Center

An eating disorder is believed to be the reason that Mary-Kate Olsen has checked into a rehab center, the Boston Herald reported.

A publicist said only that Mary-Kate checked into the rehab center to get professional help for a health-related issue. According to US Weekly magazine, the star, who just turned 18 years old, is battling anorexia.

Mary-Kate and her fraternal twin sister, Ashley, have been stars since they first appeared on the TV show Full House as babies, sharing a role. They control a billion-dollar entertainment industry that includes direct-to-video films, home decorating, and clothing lines. In May, they released their second feature film, New York Minute, a box-office disappointment.

In recent months, rumors circulated that Mary-Kate Olsen was suffering from anorexia, and she did nothing to dispel them during her publicity rounds for New York Minute because she appeared frail and bony.

One health expert noted that celebrities are under extreme pressure to be thin.

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WHO Warns Against Unrestricted Alternative Medicine Use

Unregulated use of alternative medicines could lead to unpleasant, dangerous and potentially fatal reactions, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday in issuing new guidelines aimed at people who use these therapies without telling their doctors.

Up to 80 percent of developing nations rely on traditional medicines for primary health care, the United Nations organization said in releasing its suggestions. The guidelines cover practices ranging from use of acupuncture to consumption of herbal products and diet supplements.

Although there are no known global statistics kept on use of alternative products, the WHO cited a significant increase in adverse and sometimes fatal problems. In China alone, there were almost 10,000 accounts of bad reactions to alternative products and services in 2002, up from 4,000 during all of the 1990s.

The organization said its survey of 142 nations found that 99 countries sell all or most alternative medicines over-the-counter. This raises concerns over the quality of products used, their appropriateness for a specific condition, and the lack of medical followup, the organization said in a statement.

You can download the guidelines from the WHO's Web site here. The document requires the Adobe Acrobat reader, available at www.adobe.com.

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Surge in Polio Cases Reported in Africa

A recent outbreak of polio in Africa threatens to become the largest epidemic of the disease in recent years, officials from the World Health Organization told The New York Times.

Nigeria, in reporting 60 cases for the final week in April, constitutes the largest one-week tally in many years, the officials told the newspaper. Last week, Sudan became the 10th African nation to report new cases of the disease when it diagnosed a child who had become paralyzed in May.

Although only about one in 200 infected people goes on to develop paralysis, anyone who harbors the virus can spread the disease. The virus is spread via feces, and officials worry that the growing outbreak may multiply when sewage backs up during the upcoming rainy season.

The new threat has emerged as the WHO and its United Nations partners expected to see the fruits of their $3.1 billion program to eradicate the disease worldwide, the Times reported. Some experts attributed the outbreak to a recent decision by Nigeria and other countries to stop immunizing children, claiming the polio vaccine made young girls infertile.

A WHO spokesman told the newspaper that there is no scientific evidence to support such fears, noting that the vaccine has been used safely to eliminate the disease in many other countries.

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U.S. Response to Mad Cow Criticized

A number of food and consumer groups have given the U.S. Department of Agriculture mediocre marks in its attempts to prevent mad cow disease from entering the American food supply, according to the Associated Press.

Groups like the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, and Public Citizen gave the department only a single "B", one "C", and many more "Ds" and "Fs" for its efforts to combat the brain-wasting disease.

The higher marks were given for the agency's recent policy prohibiting non-ambulatory animals from use in food and feed, and for initial steps to better identify and track affected cattle. Near-failing or failing grades were issued for USDA efforts to recall tainted meat or implement country-of-origin labels, and for not allowing private cattle producers to voluntarily test their herds, the wire service said.

A USDA spokesman defended recent efforts to expand national testing and to pay particular attention to cattle over 30 months in age, which are at higher risk of acquiring mad cow.

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