Health Highlights: Nov. 30, 2003

Washington State Adds 3 Flu Deaths to Mounting TollAnother Flu-Like Illness Hits Cruise ShipNelson Mandela Kicks Off AIDS Awareness DayChristopher Reeve Blames 'Politics' for Delaying Medical Research Cancer Trials of Anemia Drug Are Suspended First Heart Attack Gene Identified

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

Washington State Adds 3 Flu Deaths to Mounting Toll

Deaths from the flu continue to occur earlier than usual, with three elderly Washington State residents joining a list that includes four Colorado children.

The Seattle Times reports that all three victims were residents of a nursing home in Yakima County. "We're right in the middle of it. It's the earliest (flu-season start) I've ever seen," Phyllis Shoemaker, an influenza epidemiologist for the state Department of Health told the newspaper.

According to the Times, nearly 4,000 cases have been reported in Washington state alone so far, and Texas and Nevada have also had a large number of cases.

In the last week, flu has claimed the lives of 2-year-old and 21-month-old Colorado children who had had no other medical problems. It has also killed an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old who did have medical complications, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

About 36,000 people die from the flu in the United States each year. This year, because of the early incidents and deaths, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have urged flu vaccinations, especially for the young and elderly.

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Another Flu-Like Illness Hits Cruise Ship

Seventy-three passengers, complaining of flu-like symptoms, caused a Carnival cruise ship to return to its Port Everglades, Fla. port Saturday.

The Associated Press reports that four crew members on the ship Legend also suffered from the malady.

There were 2,378 passengers aboard the ship, the wire service says. The possible cause of the illness was given as norovirus, which infects more than 20 million people annually. Norovirus's symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and it lasts about three days, the AP reports.

The outbreak didn't affect the ship's next departure. It left for an eight-day Caribbean trip on schedule Saturday afternoon.

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Nelson Mandela Kicks Off AIDS Awareness Day

Of the estimated 34 million AIDS cases worldwide, 5.3 million of them are in South Africa.

With that statistic in mind, South Africa's president Nelson Mandela told a gathering in Cape Town that it will take more unity and effort to destroy the often-fatal disease than it took to eradicate apartheid in his country.

The Associated Press reports that Mandela addressed a group of musicians and entertainers in Cape Town who had come to launch the worldwide AIDS awareness appeal.

"We are called to join the war against HIV/AIDS with the same, and even greater, resolve than was shown in the fight against apartheid," the wire service quotes Mandela as saying. Mandela showed Annie Lennox, Bono and other artists a tour of Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail while South Africa was under an apartheid government.

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Christopher Reeve Blames 'Politics' for Delaying Medical Research

Christopher Reeve, the actor best known for his role as Superman, says research into finding a cure for disabilities like his own is about five years behind where it should be.

The reason, Reeve said in a CNN interview with Paula Zahn, is because political controversy has interrupted progress in areas like stem cell research.

Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down eight years ago after being thrown from a horse, had hoped to be able to walk by the time he was 50. That hasn't happened. In fact, at age 51, he has only recently been able to breathe without a respirator, and that was only because of the implanting of an experimental pacemaker in his diaphragm.

"I think we're about five years behind where we could have been in this country because of controversy over kinds of research, particularly stem cell research," Reeve told Zahn from his home in Bedford, N.Y.

The Bush administration opposes the use of human embryos in stem cell research. And the federal government has restricted the use of federal money for embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells appear to offer the best possibility of finding cures for spinal cord injuries like the one Reeve has.

Will he ever walk again? Reeve told Zahn that it "is going to depend on politics, on money, on popular support, on our willingness to take reasonable risks in the next three to five years."

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Cancer Trials of Anemia Drug Are Suspended

Four clinical trials of an anemia drug that was being tested to help cancer patients have been suspended after some patients developed unexpected levels of blood clotting.

Johnson & Johnson announced Thursday that the tests of Procrit, used primarily to treat anemia caused by chemotherapy or kidney failure, were suspended over the last several weeks, the Associated Press reports.

Procrit is a version of erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that aids in the production of red blood cells. The suspended trials sought to raise levels of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in the blood, beyond levels needed to treat anemia.

"These trials were being conducted on a hypothesis, that by using EPO with cancer patients it would increase the oxygen levels in the blood, which would make radiation and chemotherapy treatments more effective," said Mark Wolfe, the company's director of public affairs.

Wolfe said other independent trials involving EPO also have been suspended after Johnson & Johnson notified the investigators performing the trials of the concerns about blood clotting.

Some doctors said EPO does not pose a risk if it is used in prescribed amounts. Two other version of EPO, Epogen and Aranesp, are sold by Amgen. An Amgen spokesman said that labels of EPO drugs contain warnings about the risk of blood clots.

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First Heart Attack Gene Identified

More than 100 members of an Iowa family have provided scientists with the long-sought clue into whether there is a genetic predisposition to having a heart attack. And the answer is yes, there appears to be such a thing as a heart attack gene.

The Associated Press reports that the gene, known as MEF2A, has been traced through members of a large Iowa family that has been plagued for generations with heart problems, including coronary artery disease.

Dr. Eric J. Topol of the Cleveland Clinic, head of a team that discovered the gene, told the wire service that MEF2A plays a role in protecting the artery walls from building up plaque that can lead to heart attacks.

"Everyone who has this gene mutation is destined to have the disease," Topol said. "If you don't have this gene in this family, you appear to free from developing this disease."

Topol said the research team found some of the Iowa family members had MEF2A genes that lacked key bits of DNA, and this made their arteries to thicken, impeding blood flow.

More studies will be conducted, Topol said, into non-related people with the same MEF2A problems, to see if the gene works the same way.

The discovery is reported in the Nov. 28 issue of the journal Science.

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