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Health Highlights: May 24, 2005

Pet Store Chain Wants Rodents Tested for Virus Kids Who Live Near Major Roads at Greater Asthma Risk Some Apples Healthier Than Others Company Took Three Years to Reveal Defibrillator Defect: Report House to Vote on Stem Cell Bills WHO Gets New Powers to Deal With Disease Outbreaks

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

Pet Store Chain Wants Rodents Tested for Virus

The Petsmart chain of pet stores has asked its suppliers to test their stocks of hamsters, guinea pigs and mice for a rodent virus that killed three human transplant patients in New England, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

A single organ donor in Rhode Island is believed to have caught the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) from an infected pet hamster bought at a Warwick, R.I., Petsmart store. That in turn lead to the deaths of the organ recipients in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It's only the second known case of the virus being transmitted this way to people, officials told the wire service.

The virus normally causes only flu-like symptoms in people, but the organ recipients had been taking large doses of immune system-suppressing drugs, the AP reported.

There are no plans to test other organ recipients for the virus since it is considered so rare, and the resulting delay could threaten the success of pending transplants, Rhode Island state health director David Gifford told the AP.

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Kids Who Live Near Major Roads at Greater Asthma Risk

The closer youngsters live to major roads the more likely they are to develop asthma, University of California scientists have concluded from new research.

Children living within 82 yards of a freeway had the highest rates of the lung disease, the scientists said in a presentation at the American Thoracic Society's annual meeting in San Diego.

The study of the effects of motor vehicle exhaust is important, its authors said, since 15 percent of the U.S. population lives within 80 yards of a major road, according to an account of the study by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The research was conducted as part of the larger California Children's Health Study, which last year concluded that air pollution inhibits development of children's lungs, the newspaper said.

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Some Apples Healthier Than Others

Some apples may keep the doctor further away than others, Canadian researchers have found.

A study of eight popular varieties of the fruit found the Red Delicious type had more than twice the cancer-fighting antioxidants as Empire apples, the variety that contained the lowest amounts of the beneficial nutrients. Still, cautioned the scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, eating Empire apples was still better than eating no apples at all, according to the Scripps-Howard news service.

The source of the antioxidants -- chemicals called polyphenols -- were an average of five times more prevalent in the skin than in the apples' flesh, the researchers noted.

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Company Took Three Years to Reveal Defibrillator Defect: Report

Even though it was aware of the problem for three years, U.S. medical device manufacturer Guidant Corporation didn't tell doctors or patients that an implantable defibrillator it makes had a flaw that caused some of the defibrillators to short-circuit and malfunction, according to The New York Times.

The defibrillator, Ventak Prizm 2 Model 1861, is designed to give an electrical shock to restore normal rhythm to a faltering heart and has been implanted in about 24,000 people.

The flaw became public following the death of a 21-year-old Minnesota college student in March. The student had a genetic heart disease and died after his defibrillator short-circuited and he suffered cardiac arrest, the Times reported.

Following that death, Guidant informed doctors that it was aware of 25 other cases in which the same model of defibrillator had been affected by the same problem. The company said it corrected the flaw three years ago.

Dr. Joseph M. Smith, a top Guidant executive, stated in interviews that the company did not see a compelling reason to issue an earlier alert to doctors. The company reasoned that the failure rate of the defibrillators was low and replacing them might pose greater risk to patients, the Times reported.

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House to Vote on Stem Cell Bills

The U.S. House of Representatives is to vote Tuesday on two bills that would make it easier to carry out stem cell research in the United States.

The Castle-DeGette bill would lift a ban a new federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. This kind of research requires the destruction of human embryos. President Bush has vowed to veto this bill if it's passed, the Associated Press reported.

"This is not an easy vote for many Republicans ... and some Democrats, too, because you have pro-life and other arguments. There's a lot of tide against them voting for it," Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., told the AP.

The other bill has the backing of the White House and wide bipartisan support. The bill would provide $79 million to increase the amount of umbilical cord blood for stem cell research. The bill would also establish a national database for patients searching for matches.

It's believed that many House members will vote for both of the bills, the AP reported.

Proponents say stem cell research could provide treatments and perhaps even cures for diseases as diverse as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and childhood diabetes.

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WHO Gets New Powers to Deal With Disease Outbreaks

The World Health Organization (WHO) has approved new rules giving the agency broad powers to deal with disease outbreaks and other global health threats.

The 2003 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the recent bird flu epidemic in Asia point to the need for new worldwide health regulations, the WHO said. The current rules were introduced about 50 years ago, before the advent of large-scale air travel and global movement of people. The current rules cover only plague, yellow fever and cholera.

The new regulations will require countries to report to the WHO any disease outbreak considered "a public health emergency of international concern." In such cases, countries would have to show they're taking steps to control the outbreak and to allow WHO investigators into the country, the Financial Times reported.

Under the new rules, the WHO will be able to make its own recommendations about how to deal with outbreaks, such as quarantine measures, travel restrictions and airport checks. Countries would be expected to follow the WHO recommendations.

The new regulations will take effect in two years.

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