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Health Highlights: May 13, 2005

States Warn Cigarette Maker on Ad Claims U.S. May Consider Flu Shots for All Sealants Reduce Cancer Risk From Arsenic-Treated Wood: EPA Hospital Stays Increase Suicide Risk in Elderly: Study Leprosy Originated in Middle East or East Africa: Report

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

States Warn Cigarette Maker on Ad Claims

A group representing 40 state attorneys general is warning R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. that the company may face state lawsuits over claims that Eclipse cigarettes may lessen the risks of certain smoking-related diseases.

Reynolds disclosed the letter from the National Association of Attorneys General this week in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Associated Press reported.

The letter accuses the firm of engaging in "unfair and deceptive acts and practices by publishing false or misleading claims" about the cigarettes, the wire service said.

Reynolds said it has evidence to support its claims that the cigarettes, which mostly heat tobacco instead of burning it, reduce secondhand smoke by up to 80 percent. The company claims the cigarettes also leave no lingering odor, the AP said.

The attorneys general, who said they have a meeting with company representatives planned for next week, said they believe Reynolds has violated a $206 billion landmark agreement reached in 1998 between the states and the nation's cigarette makers.

As with similar brands that claim to reduce the harmful effects of smoking, the Eclipse brand has never caught on with most smokers, the AP said.


U.S. May Consider Flu Shots for All

Within five years, the U.S. government could recommend yearly flu shots for every American as a way to help stem future epidemics, the Associated Press reported.

The idea was discussed this week at a meeting of flu experts in Chicago. The proposal was floated amid concern that there may not even be enough vaccine for the upcoming season to inoculate those at greatest risk -- including the elderly, the very young, and people with compromised immune systems.

So far, only one company, Sanofi Pasteur, is licensed to produce the flu vaccine in the United States. A second company, Chiron Corp., recently began production again after the British government last fall abruptly closed the company's Liverpool, England, plant due to contamination problems. The move sparked widespread vaccine shortages in the United States for several months. Chiron hasn't yet been approved by the U.S. government to sell the vaccine again in the United States.

Flu vaccine is normally changed every year to reflect what experts expect will be the dominant strains. The fact that extra supply is usually discarded after the season makes production unappealing to many manufacturers, the AP said.

In an average year, flu sickens 82 million people in the United States, killing about 36,000, the wire service reported.


Sealants Reduce Cancer Risk From Arsenic-Treated Wood: EPA

Using oil- or water-based sealants or stains once a year can reduce the cancer risk from arsenic-treated wood by limiting the amount of arsenic that can escape and come into contact with people's skin, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Arsenic-treated wood is commonly found in children's playground equipment and backyard decks.

Results from the first year of a two-year study by the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that sealants and stains successfully contained the release of arsenic from wood treated with the pesticide chromated copper arsenate (CCA), the Associated Press reported.

The sealants and stains are better than paints or other products that can chip or flake and require scraping or sanding for removal, which can increase exposure to arsenic, the EPA said.

Exposure to CCA results in a marginally increased risk of cancer in children age 1 to 6, according to preliminary EPA studies. The EPA has removed CCA from its list of approved chemicals and the lumber industry has stopped making new products with CAA, the AP reported.


Hospital Stays Increase Suicide Risk in Elderly: Study

People over age 80 hospitalized for an illness in the previous two years are more likely to commit suicide than people who haven't been in the hospital, says a Danish study in the May issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The findings may help health-care workers identify older patients at increased risk of suicide, the study authors said.

They reviewed data on nearly 1.8 million people age 52 and older and found that 66 percent of the oldest people who committed suicide had been hospitalized for an illness in the previous two years, CBC News reported.

"Specific disorders, such as cancer, stroke, visual impairments and neurological disorders, but not Parkinson's disease, are found to be associated with elevated suicide risks in the elderly population," the study authors wrote.

This is the first study to examine the association between hospital stays and suicide in older adults, CBC News said.


Leprosy Originated in Middle East or East Africa: Report

Contrary to what has long been believed, leprosy likely originated in East Africa or the Middle East and not in India, says a French study in the May 13 issue of Science.

Researchers compared the genomes of 175 different strains of leprosy-causing bacteria from 21 countries on five continents and concluded that leprosy spread outward from either eastern Africa or the Middle East, Agence France-Presse reported.

Leprosy, one of humanity's oldest diseases, affects the skin and nervous system and can lead to disfigurement and severe disability. It can be treated with a cocktail of drugs.

Ancient texts mention leprosy in India, China and Egypt around 600 B.C. Over the past 500 years, Europeans and North Africans helped spread the disease in West Africa and the Americas through the slave trade and colonial conquests, the researchers said.

They said further investigation is needed to confirm the theory that leprosy was brought to Europe by Greek soldiers returning from Alexander the Great's campaign in India.

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