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Health Highlights: Nov. 15, 2003

Officials Move to Contain Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak Appeals Court Issues Stay in Florida Right-to-Die Case 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

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

Officials Move to Contain Pennsylvania Hepatitis A Outbreak

The fast-spreading outbreak of hepatitis A in the Pittsburgh area that claimed a third life Friday has now infected more than 500 people, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.

"This is definitely the largest hepatitis A food-borne-related outbreak," said Llelwyn Grant, a spokesman from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The outbreak, which started early this month, has been traced to a Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant in the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Health investigators have been unable to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, but they are focusing on everything from contaminated green onions to poor restaurant employee hygiene to lack of a back-flow prevention device on a hose attached to a kitchen sick, the newspaper says.

To help contain the outbreak, Allegheny County Health Department officials have inoculated about 200 people who work at shops at Pittsburgh International Airport, according to the paper.

Hepatitis A is a virus that attacks the liver, causing flu-like symptoms including fever, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain, and jaundice. It usually clears up in about two months.

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Appeals Court Issues Stay in Florida Right-to-Die Case

An appeals court in Florida has temporarily blocked a man's challenge to a new state law that was passed specifically to restore his brain-damaged wife's feeding tube.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals issued the indefinite stay Friday night, hours after a lower judge lifted another stay in the right-to-die case that has drawn national attention, the Associated Press reports.

Gov. Jeb Bush had until Monday to justify the constitutionality of the law. Michael Schiavo, the husband of Terri Schiavo, now must convince the state appeals court by Tuesday why his challenge should be on a "fast track," the news service reports.

Michael Schiavo says his wife would not want to be kept alive artificially. She suffered severe brain damage in 1990 when her heart stopped temporarily.

Against the wishes of his wife's parents, Michael Schiavo had his wife's feeding tube removed last month. Bush ordered the tube reinserted six days later under the hastily adopted law.

The AP quoted Pat Anderson, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, as saying, her "life continues to be threatened by those forces who want to see her die from starvation and dehydration. We are once again grateful that the governor is doing everything in his power to protect Terri's life."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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