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Health Highlights: May 23, 2004

Damaged Nerve Fibers Revived in Rat SpinesOver-the-Counter Pain Reliever Misuse Unabated FDA Issues Warning About Salad MixSalmonella Almond Recall Expands Don't Just Tickle Elmo, Eat and Exercise With Him, Too

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

Damaged Nerve Fibers Revived in Rat Spines

The greatest obstacle to restoring mobility in paraplegics has been finding a way to stimulate their damaged nerve cells to regenerate. In fact, some scientists have believed that such a procedure was just about impossible.

Perhaps not. The Associated Press reports a combination of three separate therapies has produced positive results in restoring nerve tissue in the damaged spines of rats in the laboratory.

The procedures were combined into a single procedure by a team at the University of Miami, says the wire service, which reports on the findings in Sunday's online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.

Research scientists Damien D. Pearse and Mary Bartlett Bunge were attempting to find a method to allow the damaged cells to bypass brain signals that limit or eliminated their growth after an injury. They combined methods from previous research: administering a messenger molecule with the drug Rolipram. The result was protection of nerve fibers from dying and at the same time promotion of new fiber growth, not only into the damaged nerves, but also beyond the injury area.

While this therapy has been confined only to animal research, the scientists are hopeful that it will lead the way to an eventual trial on humans. "This work opens up new possibilities for treatments for spinal cord-injured humans," Bunge said in a statement.


Over-the-Counter Pain Reliever Misuse Unabated

Americans are using over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications so improperly that many run the risk of life-threatening side effects, a five-year comparative study says. These drugs are also known as NSAIDs, anti-inflammatory drugs that don't contain steroids.

Data presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Gastroenterological Association in New Orleans show that although patients have become more aware of the improper use of analgesics -- aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen -- over the past five years, they're not changing their habits.

The research was underwritten by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and used as its base two surveys taken in 1997 and 2003. Here are the study's conclusions:

"The comparison study found that as of 2003, 59 percent of respondents said they were concerned about side effects associated with over-the-counter analgesics, compared to only 18 percent in 1997. However, in 2003, 44 percent of respondents said they took more than the recommended dose of medications, up from 26 percent in 1997."

These conclusions brought this warning from the study's lead investigator, Dr. Byron Cryer, associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas: "Because these drugs are easily accessible and can be very effective, there is a misperception out there that they have no risks. In reality, there are serious side effects associated with inappropriate use that patients need to recognize."

According to the researchers, overuse of NSAIDS result in side effects ranging from stomach upset to stomach bleeding, which can be life threatening. NSAID misuse leads to more than 103,000 hospitalizations and 16,500 deaths annually, the report says.


FDA Issues Warning About Salad Mix

Two separate outbreaks of an intestinal ailment known as cyclospora in Illinois and Texas have prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a warning about a salad mix.

The mixture, called raw basil and mesculin/spring salad mix, caused what the FDA terms cluster outbreaks of cyclospora last February in Wheaton, Ill., and in Arlington, Tex., a suburb of Dallas. The salad mixture is served in restaurants, and the suspect ingredients can also be bought in food stores. In Texas, 16 people were diagnosed with the illness, and in Illinois 20 people were positively diagnosed. In both incidents, the illness occurred after the subjects had been served in local restaurants.

The FDA says it is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to determine whether any more clusters of the illness have occurred.

Here's the FDA's description of the cyclospora infection: "It is caused by the cyclospora parasite, which causes a variety of debilitating symptoms, including diarrhea, loss of appetite, substantial weight loss, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, low-grade fever and fatigue. Symptoms usually develop about a week after consuming the contaminated food. Cyclospora infection can be successfully treated with appropriate antibiotic therapy."

The agency is asking anyone who may have these symptoms to contact not only his or her doctor, but also the local health department.


California Salmonella Almond Recall Expands

A recall of raw almonds from a California farm has been expanded by three days.

The Food and Drug Administration is advising distributors, wholesalers and consumers of the recall, announced by Paramount Farms of Lost Hills, Cal. Affected packages are marked with a "best before" label of May 21 or later.

Paramount Farms announced a limited recall on May 18 of whole natural raw almonds sold under the Kirkland Signature, Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands because of 18 reports of possible salmonella entereditis, a particularly nasty intestinal infection that sometimes results in death. Anyone who suspects he or she bought the almonds from Paramount Farms should return them to the supermarket and notify the local health department, the FDA says.

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

In addition to the United States, the FDA says the raw almonds were distributed in Mexico, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, France, England and Italy.


Don't Just Tickle Elmo, Eat and Exercise With Him, Too

As divided as the United States Congress is over some issues, there are some things that dictate total bipartisan support. So it is with helping kids eat better and exercise more.

The Associated Press reports that Capitol Hill's most-welcomed visitors Friday were the lovable Muppets from Sesame Street, led by Elmo, a particular favorite with the toddler set.

Greeting them were a leading Republican, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of of Tennessee, and Democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, an ex-college basketball player.

The government-sponsored program is called Healthy Habits for Life, and the Sesame Street gang will record some public service announcements to help promote it. Additionally, the wire service reports, more time will be spent on the Sesame Street program in 2005 to demonstrate good eating and exercise habits.

The senators weren't about to be upstaged by Muppets. Frist, a physician, told Elmo to drink plenty of liquids, and Wyden, who played basketball at the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrated his jump shot.

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