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Health Highlights: Nov. 25, 2004

Flu Activity Low So Far Probe Sought on Charges FDA Discredited Whistleblower Flame Retardant Found in Great Lakes Depression Treatment Boosts Employee Productivity Cow Tests Negative for Mad Cow Disease

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

Flu Activity Low So Far

It's still early in the influenza season, but government experts say that the activity of the deadly virus is off to a slow start.

Experts are still crossing their fingers in light of the nationwide flu vaccine shortage, but so far only Delaware and New York are experiencing what they call "significant" activity, according to the Associated Press -- and even then, significant is relative.

"From the data that we see, things haven't really taken off -- it's continued flu activity at low levels in a lot of places," Lynnette Brammer, a flu epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the wire service. "It looks like New York, the mid-Atlantic area, is where things are starting to pick up, but it's early. At this point, you can't tell how the season's going to progress."

Delaware is the only state to have what the CDC calls "widespread" flu activity. However, the state meets that definition only because influenza was reported in each county. There are only six counties in the First State, and only a total of six cases, according to the AP.

New York has what the CDC calls "regional" activity because of sporadic outbreaks in nursing homes. The flu season typically runs from October through March, with January usually being the month with the highest activity. However, last year the season got off to an early start, prompting runs on the vaccine, and declined substantially by January.

Nearly half of the nation's expected 100 million doses of vaccine was cut off after British authorities halted production of a major manufacturer, Chiron Corp., citing contamination problems.

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Probe Sought on Charges FDA Discredited Whistleblower

The head of the Senate Finance Committee called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to launch a probe of allegations that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration went out of its way to discredit a whistleblower.

Tom Devine of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project said that the FDA insider, David Graham, contacted him some weeks ago about how to get word to the public about the dangers of the prescription drug Vioxx. Soon after, Devine received anonymous calls questioning Graham's credibility, the Washington Post reported.

"If these allegations indeed have merit, it appears that these activities may have been coordinated by FDA management and may have involved the misuse of government resources, including government property and time." Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel's chairman, wrote in a letter to the department. Grassley is seeking an investigation by the agency's inspector general.

Graham testified before the panel last week that he had raised concerns early about Vioxx, the painkiller that was withdrawn in September after it was tied to a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. He also said that the safety of five other drugs the FDA approved should be looked at.

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Flame Retardant Found in Great Lakes

A flame retardant that's now illegal in many countries is showing up in places from Great Lakes fish to food at the grocery store and even in breast milk, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are commonly used chemicals that are added to plastics in such products as computers, televisions, carpets, and furniture. The research team found that Lake Michigan's top predator fish, coho and chinook salmon, contain PBDEs at concentrations exceeding 100 parts per billion.

"These are among the highest levels measured to date in open water fish anywhere in the world," Jon Manchester of the University of Wisconsin Water Science and Engineering Laboratory Manchester, said in a statement.

Other studies have found PBDEs in predator fish in each of the other four Great Lakes. The team also found PBDEs in several types of foraging fish like alewife, sculpin, chubs, and smelt.

If these trends continue, the researchers said in a statement, PBDEs will eventually become the main contaminants in the sediment. Studies by other researchers have found PBDE contamination in the breast milk of U.S. women at levels up to 20 times higher than in European women. High levels were also detected in supermarket foods, notably meat and seafood. Studies in mice and rats suggest that chronic exposure to PBDEs may damage the liver and thyroid.

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Depression Treatment Boosts Employee Productivity

High-quality care for depression can reduce employee sick days and boost their productivity, says a study in the journal Medical Care.

The study focused on a two-year treatment program for 326 depressed employees conducted at 12 primary care practices across the United States. The program improved the employees' productivity at work by 6 percent and reduced absenteeism by 22 percent.

The productivity increase was estimated at $1,491 a year for each depressed, full-time worker, while the estimated savings in reduced absenteeism was $539.

The workers in this study received either standard or enhanced depression treatment. Both groups received treatment from specially trained doctors who encouraged the patients to consider antidepressant drugs, counseling, or both.

Those in the enhanced treatment group also received regular contact from a care manager who talked with the patients about their symptoms, provided extra information about depression treatment, encouraged them to stick with their treatments, and adjusted the treatments if necessary.

Consistently employed workers showed the most benefit from the enhanced therapy.

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Cow Tests Negative for Mad Cow Disease

A U.S. cow suspected of having mad cow disease has tested negative, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Two separate chemical tests at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, detected no indication of the brain-wasting disease in the cow, the Associated Press reported.

The results end a five-day scare that shook up cattle markets and left some consumers wondering about the safety of the beef they eat.

Only one case of mad cow disease -- a dairy cow in Washington state that tested positive last December -- has been confirmed in the United States. Two suspected cases last June were found to be negative.

Few details were released about the animal that was the subject of this most recent mad cow alarm.

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