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Health Highlights: June 24, 2004

Jury Awards $7.4 Million in Ephedra Suit Genetic Marker to Rheumatoid Arthritis Found Dirty Air Plagues Many National Parks Cancer-Causing Toxin Killed Washington Cows U.S. Orders Boost in Flu Shot Supply How to Strip Snorers of Their Drone

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

Jury Awards $7.4 Million in Ephedra Suit

A jury awarded a 35-year-old Texas woman $7.4 million Wednesday, finding that the dietary supplement Metabolife caused a stroke that left her brain-damaged.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the jury found that Metabolife International Inc. acted maliciously by including ephedra, the now-banned diet drug, in its supplement. It awarded Rhea McAllister $2.4 million for damage caused by the drug and another $5 million in punitive damages.

According to the Chronicle, the stroke left McAllister numb on her right side, making it difficult for her to use her right hand and causing her to drag her right foot. She also suffered short-term memory loss and dizziness that is so unpredictable that she is afraid to drive.

The suit is among the first to be tried since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra in April. McAllister's attorneys accused Metabolife of trying to hide thousands of complaints about adverse reactions to its product, the newspaper reports.

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Genetic Marker to Rheumatoid Arthritis Found

Researchers have found a not-too-uncommon genetic variation that doubles a person's risk of getting rheumatoid arthritis.

The variation, called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), is present in about 28 of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers and about 17 percent of the general population, according to a study in the August issue of the journal American Journal of Human Genetics.

The SNP the researchers linked to arthritis is in a gene that codes for an enzyme that controls the activation of immune cells. When SNP is present in both copies of a gene, the immune cells over-respond and cause inflammation.

"This is not an abnormal gene," said Dr. Peter Gregersen of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Research Institute, leader of the study. "This particular genetic variation may have contributed to the survival of our ancestors. The price we have to pay for that, however, is that some people are modestly predisposed to developing rheumatoid arthritis."

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Dirty Air Plagues Many National Parks

A new report finds that many of the country's national parks have dirty air, and that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is the most polluted.

CNN reports that the Smokies contain unhealthy ozone levels that are higher than those found in major cities like New York. The report, complied by the National Parks Conservation Association, Appalachian Voices, and Our Children's Earth, has tracked air quality trends at the parks for the last decade.

Between 1999 and 2003, the park recorded 150 unhealthy air days, or about a month per year, according to the CNN account. During the peak summer season, visitors were advised to avoid prolonged exposure to the outdoor air.

Other parks making the dubious list include Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Acadia National Park in Maine, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks in California.

Most of the pollution comes from outside sources, like factories and auto exhaust. "America's national parks represent our nation's heritage, and a veil of haze and smog hangs over these special places," said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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Cancer-Causing Toxin Killed Washington Cows

Dairy cows that were sickened or killed in Washington state earlier this month were exposed to a "strong oxidizing chromium compound," but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there is "no identifiable risk" to the milk supply.

Officials wouldn't say exactly what the compound was or where it came from, but an unidentified source told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the toxin was chromium 6, a known carcinogen with many pharmaceutical and industrial uses.

Chromium 6, a substance made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich, is a "corrosive, aggressive" chemical, University of Washington chemist James Mayer said. "I don't believe you could just walk into a hardware store and buy one of these things," the PI quotes him as saying. "They're bad news."

In a statement on its Web site, the FDA said it's been working around the clock since the weekend, when a farmer in a Seattle suburb reported that three of his cows had died and up to 17 others had been exposed to an unknown substance that had caused reddish-black patches on the animals, as well as skin blisters.

At least four federal agencies -- including the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI -- began investigations into what and who caused the incident, news sources reported.

The FDA said detectable levels of chromium -- both in sick cows and those that hadn't been exposed to the substance -- were well below the acceptable level of 100 parts per billion allowed in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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U.S. Orders Boost in Flu Shot Supply

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked flu shot manufacturers to produce 100 million inoculations for the upcoming season, saying it's determined to avoid the shortages that plagued many areas last winter.

Last year, manufacturers had distributed their entire supply of 87 million shots by December, due to an early start to the season and fears that the dominant strain was going to be more severe than in prior years, according to the Associated Press. The vaccines take months to prepare, so at the time, the agency began urging people to opt for a newer, but costlier, nasal spray version instead.

The 100 million shots to be produced for the upcoming season do not include an additional 4.5 million shots ordered by the CDC itself in the first-ever stockpiling of the vaccine for children and others most at risk, the AP said.

With fresh memories of last year's shortages and new CDC guidelines recommending that children 6 months to 23 months old be vaccinated, the agency says it expects demand to be higher than normal this winter, according to the wire service.

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How to Strip Snorers of Their Drone

In most cases, snoring is harmless -- except when it results in lost sleep among those nearest the buzzsaw.

If you're among those so inflicted, take heart. Hong Kong researchers say they've come up with a way to strip many snorers of their ceaseless buzz -- small plastic strips applied to the soft tissue at the top of the mouth, the New York Times reports.

The strips stiffen the otherwise vibrating soft palate that's at the heart of a snorer's bellow, according to the researchers' article published in the Archives of Otolaryngology. Patients who wore the strips reported a drop in daytime sleepiness.

But the happiest campers were the patients' significant others. Their ratings of partners' loudness fell from an average of 79 out of 100, to just 48 at the conclusion of the three-month study. And once the trial ended, none of the 12 snoring participants still fell into the study's most severe classification: snoring loud enough to be "heard outside the house," the Times said.

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