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Health Highlights: Nov. 20, 2004

New Tests Aim for Better Confirmation of Mad Cow DiseaseSwedish Cancer Cases May be From 1986 Chernobyl Accident Utah Has Lowest Lung, Colorectal Cancer Rates Scientists Create Electronic Eye for the Blind FDA Official Defends Drug Safety Record

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

New Tests Aim for Better Confirmation of Mad Cow Disease

While the public waits for results of tests that will determine whether there's another case of mad cow disease in the United States, new government procedures have been designed to eliminate as much speculation as possible.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now requires two preliminary tests before there's even a public announcement of a suspected case, the Associated Press reports. That's why so little information has been forthcoming from the USDA since it announced Nov. 18 it was investigating the possibility of a second case of the fatal bovine illness. Officials would give no information about the location of the animal or what led them to suspect it might be ill.

Results from the latest case are expected by the middle of next week. The country's first-ever confirmed case of the nervous system disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), turned up last January in a Holstein cow in Washington State. Several countries, including Japan, still maintain bans against imports of U.S. beef as a result, the AP reported.

The wire service says the USDA has tested more than 113,000 cattle since June 1. There were two false-positive cases in June, which led to the agency's requiring two tests instead of one, before taking further steps to confirm a case of mad cow.

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Swedish Cancer Cases May be From 1986 Chernobyl Accident

It's been almost 20 years, but the 1986 nuclear reactor accident in the Russian town of Chernobyl may be still wreaking havoc.

The Associated Press reports that more than 800 people in northern Sweden may have cancer from the radioactive fallout that occurred more than 18 years ago. The radiation was released on April 26, 1986, when a nuclear reactor at an atomic energy plant exploded at Chernobyl and caught fire. Contamination occurred for hundreds of square miles and crossed over international boundaries. All of the region's citizens -- numbering in the hundreds of thousands -- had to be resettled, leaving Chernobyl as a virtual ghost town, and fertile farmland was left barren.

Since then there have been a number of studies in Russia, Sweden and other nearby countries to determine the effect of the fallout. According to the wire service, this latest report attributes 849 cancer cases out of 22,400 in Sweden directly to the Chernobyl accident.

However, there is disagreement over whether all these cases can be attributed to Chernobyl. Leif Moberg, of the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority, told the A.P. it was too early to measure that many cancer cases from the nuclear accident. "Most cancer cases don't develop until 20, 30 or 50 years later," he said. The A.P. reports the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority as previously estimating that the fallout will produce about 300 cancer deaths in 50 years.

But Martin Tondel, the researcher at Linkoeping University who headed the study and whose findings were first published in this month's issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, told the wire service there was just no other way to explain the 849 cases. "We've tried our best to explain it in other ways, but we can't," Tondel told the AP. "So then you have to believe your data."

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Utah Has Lowest Lung, Colorectal Cancer Rates

A new U.S. government report finds that Utah has the lowest rates of both lung and colorectal cancers as well as the lowest death rate from these diseases.

The report, from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a comprehensive, state-by-state look at morbidity and death rates from cancer. It also includes information on rates among Hispanics as well as a new section on mesothelioma and Kaposi's sarcoma.

Among the other findings:

  • Washington, D.C., has the highest incidence and death rates of prostate cancer, while Arizona has the lowest incidence and Hawaii has the lowest death rate;
  • The District of Columbia also had the highest colorectal and breast cancer death rates, while the lowest death rates were seen in South Dakota;
  • Kentucky had the highest death rate from lung cancer for men, while West Virginia had the highest for women;
  • And the highest incidence of breast cancer rates were in Washington state, while the lowest were in Texas.

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Scientists Create Electronic Eye for the Blind

Japanese scientists say they have created an electronic eye that would help blind people cross the street safely.

The device, a tiny camera mounted to a pair of eyeglasses, can detect the existence and location of a pedestrian crossing, and at the same time measure the width of the road to the nearest step and detect the color of the traffic lights, according to a new article in the Institute of Physics journal Measurement Science and Technology.

"The camera would be mounted at eye level, and be connected to a tiny computer. It will relay information using a voice speech system and give vocal commands and information through a small speaker placed near the ear," Professor Tadayoshi Shioyama of the Kyoto Institute of Technology said in a statement.

Technology has helped the blind navigate in other ways, especially at crossings that don't make a sound saying it's safe to walk. Adaptations have been made to the most common travel aid used by blind people, the white-tipped cane. Some canes now use lasers or ultrasound to detect more distant obstacles, but they cannot give the location of a crossing or the color of the lights.

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FDA Official Defends Drug Safety Record

A top official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday that he and his colleagues "categorically reject" earlier Congressional testimony that the agency has failed to protect the public against dangerous drugs.

Dr. Steven Galson, acting director of the agency's Center for Drug Evaluation, dismissed allegations from one of the FDA's own drug reviewers that the agency was allowing dangerous drugs to reach the public.

The charges made Thursday by FDA reviewer David Graham have "no basis in fact," Galson said Friday on NBC's "Today" show, according to an Associated Press account.

Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, Graham chided the agency for mishandling the arthritis drug Vioxx, which was recently withdrawn by its maker because of an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Critics have since alleged that the agency knew of problems with Vioxx years earlier but did nothing to alert the public or withdraw the drug.

Graham told senators the agency was "virtually defenseless" against a repeat incident.

Countered Galson during Friday's television appearance: "What we're concerned about is the sort of hysterical charges that come out, that aren't based on reality," he said of Graham's allegations.

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