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Health Highlights: Nov. 14, 2003

Scientist Claims Creation of Self-Reproducing Artificial Virus World Marks SARS' 1st Anniversary 85,000 Mini Bikes and Scooters Recalled Pro Baseball Set to Impose Steroid Penalties 3rd Death Linked to Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak Diabetes Often Missed in Coronary Patients

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

Scientist Claims Creation of Self-Reproducing Artificial Virus

In an announcement that borders on science fiction come true, genome pioneer Craig Venter says his scientists have created an artificial virus that has the ability to reproduce itself, USA Today reports.

It took the researchers just two weeks to create a synthetic genetic map of an actual virus and implant it into a bacterial cell, making the synthetic version "biologically active," the newspaper says.

Venter says this is far from creating an artificial animal or human life, since the bacterial cell is a much simpler life form. The bacteriophage created has 5,000 base pairs in its genetic map, while the human genome has 3 billion base pairs.

Yet, the announcement raises ethical and safety questions, as scientists debate the experiment's usefulness to medicine as opposed to the potential for abuse by biological terrorists. The Venter researchers have chosen to make their findings public before they appear in the next few weeks on the Web site of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA Today reports.


World Marks SARS' 1st Anniversary

It's been a year since a mysterious flu-like illness first emerged in southern China last November. Later labeled SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), it killed 700 people and infected more than 8,000 worldwide before it was finally contained in late spring.

The disease has been first traced to a man in China's Guangdong province, where doctors reported a mysterious, fast moving viral pneumonia in December 2002, recalls the Voice of America. By late February, the outbreak had spilled over into the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, and within days had spread to Vietnam and Canada.

Experts say the virus may have been better contained from the get-go if Chinese officials had been open in sharing information about the emerging epidemic with other countries, Voice of America says.

That's changed now, as Chinese officials are said to be in frequent touch with the outside world, preparing for another winter and the virus' expected return. Despite a huge international effort, there still is no cure or vaccine for SARS.


85,000 Mini Bikes and Scooters Recalled

Fisher-Price is recalling 55,000 electric mini bikes and 30,000 electric scooters with motors that could malfunction, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

Users are at risk of injury if the motor control circuits don't operate properly and the engines continue to run after the power is cut or the throttle button is released. Fisher-Price says it has 80 reports of malfunctioning motors, causing injuries including a chipped tooth and a broken arm.

The Lightning PAC Scooters (model 73530) and MX3 Mini Bikes (models 73535 and B2222) are designed for children ages 6 and older. Model numbers on the products, made in China, are found in the battery compartment.

Toy stores and other retailers nationwide sold the scooters between November 2001 and October 2003 for about $250. The mini bikes were sold between May 2003 and September 2003 for about $200.


Pro Baseball Set to Impose Steroid Penalties

Spurred by a surge in players who have tested positive for steroid use, Major League Baseball will begin penalizing some players who use the drugs next season, including the act of publicly identifying them, The New York Times reports.

For the first time this past season, more than 5 percent of player tests were positive. Of the 1,438 random tests conducted, positive tests ranged from 70 to 100. But some players may have tested positive twice, so it's unclear about how many players were involved, the Times reports.

Major league owners began pushing for testing in 2002, when two former Most Valuable Players, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, conceded they used the performance-enhancing drugs and claimed many others did, too. But the players' union resisted widespread testing until last year, when both sides agreed on a new labor contract.

The contract mandated that if more than 5 percent of player tests came back positive, harsher rules would be imposed the following season. Under those rules, a first positive results in mandatory treatment, while a second offense brings a 15-day suspension or a fine of up to $10,000.

The new rules will be in effect for 2004 and 2005, and probably in 2006 unless the positive rate were to fall below 2.5 percent by then, the Times reports.


3rd Death Linked to Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak

A third victim of a western Pennsylvania outbreak of hepatitis A died early Friday, and the number of those stricken has climbed to 410, the Associated Press reports.

As state health officials concede they still haven't confirmed a source of the outbreak in a Pittsburgh suburb, the Mexican restaurant chain that owns the eatery where the outbreak began says it will stop using green onions in all of its dishes as a precaution. A spokesman for Kentucky-based Chi Chi's calls green onions "the prime suspect" in the outbreak, discounting earlier reports that the infectious liver disease may have been spread by an employee who didn't wash his hands.

Health officials say some of the latest cases may have resulted from people who had eaten at the restaurant spreading the virus to others.

The unidentified third victim died at about 4 a.m. Friday, the AP reports. On Wednesday, a 52-year-old woman who had celebrated her 32nd wedding anniversary at the restaurant was the second victim to die from the outbreak. A week earlier, a 38-year-old male diner died, like the second victim, also from liver failure.

Hepatitis A causes flu-like symptoms including fever, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain, and jaundice. It usually clears in about two months, the AP says.


Diabetes Often Missed in Coronary Patients

Diabetes is "grossly under-diagnosed" and under-treated in people with coronary artery disease, the European Society of Cardiology says in marking World Diabetes Day, Nov. 14.

In a recent study of 3,540 cardiac patients, 32 percent were found to have previously undiagnosed diabetes. When combined with the 37 percent of cases that had been correctly diagnosed, it meant that the percentage of diabetic or pre-diabetic coronary patients among the study participants was 69 percent.

To put it another way, people with diabetes are up to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, the ESC says. The two diseases share a number of common lifestyle factors, including lack of exercise and poor diet. The society estimates that there are now 150 million diabetics worldwide, a number that's set to double by 2025.

In the United States, cases of diabetes climbed to an all-time high of about 18.2 million people in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Some 13 million Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes and 5.2 million more have the disease but haven't been diagnosed, HHS says.

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