Health Highlights: March 7, 2004

Avian Flu Now In Maryland, Prompting Massive Chicken Kill Ashcroft Remains in Hospital, Condition UnchangedU.S. Flu 'Epidemic' Not SoNew Way to Detect Breast Cancer West Nile Blamed on Hybrid North American Mosquito

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

Avian Flu Now In Maryland, Prompting Massive Chicken Kill

The same strain of avian flu first discovered last month in Delaware is now at a big chicken farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, prompting health officials to order the slaughter of more than 325,000 chickens.

The killing of 328,000 fowl on a huge commercial farm is nearly four time larger than the number fowl killed on Delaware farms last month, the Associated Press reports.

While the strain of flu -- H7 -- has not proved dangerous to humans, health officials are taking no chances in the wake of a similar strain in Asia that has killed both humans and chickens.

In addition to the slaughter, Maryland agriculture officials have ordered a quarantine covering eight farms within a two-mile radius of the infected farm. According to the AP, the big farm grows chickens on a contract basis for Mountaire Farms of Selbyville, Del. The department also began testing 79 poultry farms within a six-mile radius, the wire service said.

While officials couldn't confirm that there was a connection between the Delaware and Maryland cases, they couldn't rule it out, either.

"It is discouraging, and it's surprising to us," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis Riley told the wire service at a news conference near the infected farm in Pocomoke City.

Health officials had hoped the Delaware case was an isolated one and that the ban on chicken imports from the United States to the 15-nation European Union, China, Japan, Mexico, Russia and South Korea would be lifted.

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Ashcroft Remains in Hospital, Condition Unchanged

Attorney General John Ashcroft remained in the hospital Saturday, suffering from what doctors said was an inflamed pancreas brought on by gallstones.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Ashcroft was being treated with antibiotics and painkillers and added there had been no change in his condition.

The Associated Press reported that doctors were still looking at test results and evaluating Ashcroft's physical condition before deciding on their next steps, which could include surgery.

Ashcroft, 61, cancelled a scheduled appearance Thursday afternoon in Alexandria, Va., to announce verdicts in a terrorism case, thinking he had a stomach flu, according to a statement by Corallo.

As the day progressed, his condition worsened. Dr. Daniel Parks, the White House physician, visited Ashcroft at his home and urged him to seek emergency care.

Ashcroft was brought to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors determined that he was suffering from acute pancreatitis, Corallo says. He was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, where he is being treated with antibiotics.

Pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas, a large gland behind the abdomen that produces insulin. Pain and vomiting are hallmark symptoms. It can be brought on by alcohol abuse, but in Ashcroft's case -- as often happens with this condition -- it was the result of gallstones blocking the pancreatic duct.

Recovery is often without incident, according to the National Pancreas Foundation.

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U.S. Flu 'Epidemic' Not So

In the words of Saturday Night Live "commentator" Emily Latella: "Never mind."

What started out in the autumn of 2003 as a fear that an influenza pandemic was threatening the United States has ended with fewer flu cases than in 2002.

"When we look back at the flu season, overall, what we see is that it's not particularly severe," Dr. Nancy Cox of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta told ABCNEWS.

The network examined the number of doctor visits by the end of December 2003 and found that three times more people were reporting flu-like symptoms. But by January 2004, a reversal took place, so much so that "the flu is now at levels well below last season," ABCNEWS reports.

What may have triggered the public's panic was that influenza hit very early and caused the deaths of a number of children before winter set in. But the network quotes Cox as saying health officials expected a mild flu season: "Because we had an early season, we were likely to have an early end. Of course, we didn't want to predict that because it would then raise expectations."

The CDC is in the middle of compiling all the statistics for the 2003-2004 flu season, but the agency's officials don't expect to see anything dramatic.

They now have to decide whether to stock up on an increased supply of flu vaccine for the record number of people who got it as a precaution in 2003.

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New Way to Detect Breast Cancer

Three major U.S. university research hospital centers are testing a procedure that may be able to detect breast cancer cells long before a lump develops.

The Associated Press reports the new procedure, which works like a pap smear, detects the precancerous cells in the cervix, could be an effective way to begin treatments for women at a much earlier stage.

"It has quite a bit of potential, which is very exciting," Dr. Victoria Seewaldt, a breast cancer oncologist at Duke, told the wire service.

The pap smear has been used for detecting cervical cancer cells for more than 60 years. The experimental procedure works by extracting breast cells with a needle and determining whether a gene called RAR beta is present. RAR may inhibit cancer cells from developing.

Testing is still in very early stages, with 35 women participating. "We need to be very cautious here," Seewaldt told the wire service. "I don't think this will be used for all women, but as we learn more about who is at increased risk of breast cancer, we hope to be able to determine who has a good chance of getting better."

The tests are being conducted at Duke University Medical Center, University of Kansas Medical Center and Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University.

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West Nile Blamed on Hybrid North American Mosquito

Ever since West Nile virus first appeared in North America in 1999, scientists have wondered why the disease has been far more prevalent there than in Europe.

Now, a new study suggests the reason may be found in a hybrid mosquito common to North America that bites both birds and humans, transmitting the virus from one to the other.

European mosquito species tend to bite either birds or humans, but not both, limiting transmission of the potentially fatal disease to people, researchers say in the new issue of the journal Science.

Dina M. Fonseca of the Smithsonian Institution, the study's lead author, said 40 percent of the mosquito population genetically analyzed in the United States are a type of hybrid Culex that will bite both humans and birds, the Associated Press reports.

Since birds are the main source of West Nile, the hybrid Culex serves as a perfect conduit to humans that may not exist to the same extent in Europe, said Fonseca, according to the news service.

But Andrew Spielman of Harvard's School of Public Health said in the same issue of the journal that he suspects West Nile has created more health problems in the United States because the virus is new to North America. Europeans, he added, have been exposed to the virus for centuries, the AP says.

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