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Health Highlights: June 26, 2005

Months-Long Delay in Mad Cow Announcement Stirs Debate June 27 is National HIV Testing Day HIV Drugs May Also Fight Malaria Patient Deaths Spur 'Enclosed Bed' Recall

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

Months-Long Delay in Mad Cow Announcement Stirs Debate

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are facing harsh criticism over a seven-month delay in announcing test results indicating that a suspect animal was infected with mad cow disease, the second such case yet documented in the country.

The test in question, described by USDA officials as "experimental," was ordered after two previous faster "Elisa" tests had come up negative for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the formal name for mad cow disease. The animal also tested negative on a slower immunohistochemistry test, considered the agency's "gold standard" at the time.

Those tests were all conducted by USDA last November. Then, just two weeks ago, and for reasons that remain unclear, agency inspector general Phyllis K. Fong ordered that tissue samples from the cow be sent to a well-respected lab in England for further testing using the Western blot method.

Several tests were run, all of which came up positive for BSE.

When asked why news of the first positive result from the "experimental" test last November had not been publicized, Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd blamed the delay on a breakdown in internal agency communications. "The laboratory folks just never mentioned it to anyone higher up," he said. "They didn't know if it was valid or not, so they didn't report it."

The debacle has both the beef lobby and consumer groups on edge. Jim McAdams, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the Times that irregularities in agency testing create "great anxiety within our industry." And Dr. Michael K. Hansen, senior research associate at Consumers Union, said "How can we be confident of anything [the USDA] are saying?"

In the meantime, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns announced major changes to the nation's "mad cow" testing protocols at a news conference Friday.

The cow in question was slaughtered in November. Johanns said it born before the 1997 U.S. ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminant animals. The animal was considered a "downer" that was unable to walk and had not entered the human food supply, he added.

"This animal was blocked from entering the food supply because of the firewalls we have in place. Americans have every reason to continue to be confident in the safety of our beef," he told reporters.

But Johanns also listed other errors in the agency's testing process. The animal's brain samples were frozen, making testing more difficult; parts from five carcasses were mixed together; and no written records were kept, he said.

The agency chief said there was no evidence the animal was born outside the country, and added that DNA tests are currently underway to determine its herd of origin.

Meanwhile, Taiwan on Saturday reimposed an immediate ban on imports of American beef after the second case was confirmed.

Two months ago the island lifted a ban it had imposed in February 2004 following the discovery in 2003 of the disease in a Washington state cow that had been imported from Canada. The origin of the new case wasn't immediately made available.

BSE occurs when proteins called prions bend into misfolded shapes. They deposit plaque that kills brain cells and leaves behind spongy holes. People who eat contaminated meat may acquire a human form called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which has killed about 150 people worldwide, the AP said.

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June 27 is National HIV Testing Day

Experts at the CDC estimate that up to 280,000 Americans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but do not know it -- potentially threatening their own health while encouraging the spread of infection to others.

Thats why every year the agency joins hands with the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) to sponsor National HIV Testing Day, slated this year for Monday, June 27.

As part of the event, thousands of testing sites across the nation will hold special health fairs, engage in community outreach and work under extended hours, all so that individuals -- particularly those in high-risk populations -- can find out their status. The NAPWA slogan, "Take the test. Take control," reminds individuals that knowing one's status allows them to make treatment decisions early and protect others from getting HIV.

To find out more about National HIV Testing Day, and testing centers near you, head to http://hivtest.org/.

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HIV Drugs May Also Fight Malaria

Australian researchers have found that the protease inhibitor class of HIV-suppressing medications also stop the parasite that causes malaria from growing.

In laboratory and mouse studies, use of antiretroviral medications such as ritonavir, saquinavir or lopinavir in combination were especially effective in stopping the malaria virus.

While the expense and side effects of these drugs may prevent them from becoming first-line therapies against malaria, researchers at the University of Queensland point out that malaria and HIV/AIDS are among the biggest killers in the developing world, especially Sub-Saharan Africa.

The drugs' "anti-malarial activity does suggest a unique parasite target that has yet to be exploited," lead author Dr. Kathy Andrews told the BBC. The exact mechanism by which protease inhibitors block the parasite remains unclear, she said.

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Patient Deaths Spur 'Enclosed Bed' Recall

The FDA announced Friday a manufacturer-initiated recall of over 5,000 "enclosed," zippered and canopied bed systems after 30 incidents of patients becoming entrapped between the bed's side-rail and mattress or between the canopy and mattress.

Patients in 8 of those incidents died as a result of entrapment and asphyxiation, the FDA said in a statement.

The beds, made by Vail Products, Inc., of Toledo, Ohio, are meant to be used as an alternative to sedation or physical restraint in patients with cognitive impairment or uncontrolled behavior, seizures or spasms.

Vail Products is sending out new instruction manuals to every customer warning them of the hazard and informing them of the FDA's advice "to stop using the bed system, move patients to alternative bed systems if possible and consult with their physician." According to the FDA, Vail Products stated it has ceased making enclosed bed systems as of June 16th.

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