Health Highlights: March 8, 2004

Allergy Season Off to Fast, Early Start Child-size Heart Pump Introduced Study Challenges Cholesterol Recommendations Ashcroft's Doctors Awaiting Test Results Avian Flu Now In Maryland, Prompting Massive Chicken Kill U.S. Flu 'Epidemic' Not So

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

Allergy Season Off to Fast, Early Start

So you managed to escape the flu season unscathed, but you're suddenly struggling with a sore throat, headache, running nose and watery eyes.

A late-season cold? Try an early season allergy.

Doctors across the United States are reporting that the spring allergy season is off to a fast, premature start. They attribute the early outbreak to a recent run of unseasonably warm weather across much of the country, enticing trees such as elm, maple and oak to part with their pollen particles, the Associated Press reports.

"Normally, it wouldn't be until the end of March or the start of April," says Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

This early start to the allergy season is unwelcome news to the estimated 30 percent of Americans who suffer from allergies, the sixth-leading cause of chronic disease in the country, the AP says.

One of the few regions to buck the trend is the winter-weary upper Midwest. Dr. James Li, an allergy specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the news agency that his patients are fine. The reason: There's still snow on the ground and trees don't normally start pollinating for at least six more weeks.

-----

Child-size Heart Pump Introduced

A scaled-down version of the original heart pump designed by renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey is ready for use in children and could be implanted in a matter of weeks, the Associated Press reports.

The pump is meant for children ages 5 to 16 who are awaiting human heart transplants. The original version was too large for such children, many of whom were forced to be hospitalized on heart-lung machines for long periods until human donors could be found.

The DeBakey ventricular assist device helps weak hearts pump blood throughout the body, aiding the job of the organ's left ventricle. Experts say about 500 children worldwide are awaiting heart transplants and may be candidates for the new device, the AP reports.

The adult version, weighing less than 4 ounces, has been implanted in some 240 patients since it was introduced in 1998.

-----

Study Challenges Cholesterol Recommendations

New research on the "miracle" anti-cholesterol drugs called statins suggests that current cholesterol guidelines may be too high, HealthDay reports.

Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation found that high levels of the drugs given to people who have just been hospitalized with heart attacks or high-risk unstable angina not only prevented future "events" but also saved lives.

The findings, published in the April 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, call into question current guidelines telling us how low our low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or the "bad" cholesterol) levels should be. The journal released the study early to coincide with a presentation Monday at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.

Current guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend that LDL cholesterol levels be less than 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood for patients with established coronary artery disease or diabetes.

The study involved 4,162 patients at 349 sites in eight countries. One group was given 40 milligrams of pravastatin each day (the standard therapy), while the other was given 80 milligrams of atorvastatin each day (intensive therapy).

In the standard therapy group, the mean LDL cholesterol level attained was 95 mg. per deciliter. In the intensive group, it went down to 62 mg. per deciliter. Over a period of about 24 months, the intensive therapy group (atorvastatin) showed a 16 percent lower risk of overall major cardiovascular events and a 28 percent reduction in death.

-----

Ashcroft's Doctors Awaiting Test Results

Attorney General John Ashcroft remained hospitalized Monday suffering from what doctors said was an inflamed pancreas brought on by gallstones.

Doctors say they're awaiting test results to determine if Ashcroft, 61, will require surgery. He was hospitalized Thursday with what he thought was a case of stomach flu.

Ashcroft was brought to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors determined that he was suffering from acute pancreatitis, a Justice Department spokesman says. The attorney general was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, where he is being treated with antibiotics and painkillers, the Associated Press reports.

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.

-----

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 of 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 says.

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.

-----

U.S. Flu 'Epidemic' Not So

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

What started out in the fall 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told ABC News.

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 had taken place, so much so that "the flu is now at levels well below last season," ABC News reports.

Consumer News