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Health Highlights: Oct. 2, 2003

House Passes Partial-Birth Abortion Ban FDA Warns Consumers on Powder With High Lead Content CDC: California Could Be Next West Nile Epicenter Taiwanese Find Genetic Link to SARS 'Kissing Disease' Linked to Hodgkin's

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

House Passes Partial-Birth Abortion Ban

The House voted Thursday to ban a type of abortion that has long been at the center of the debate over a woman's reproductive rights.

The bill to ban partial-birth abortion passed 281-142 and could be taken up by the Senate as early as Friday. President Bush has promised to sign the bill into law, and opponents say they will immediately go to court to challenge what would be the first federal law since Roe v. Wade in 1973 to restrict a specific abortion procedure, the Associated Press reports.

The drive to stop partial birth-abortion "will finally become law and the performance of this barbaric procedure will finally come to an end," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis).

Critics said the partial-birth ban, twice vetoed by President Clinton, was part of a larger agenda to undermine the 1973 Supreme Court decision supporting a woman's right to end a pregnancy. It's "an attempt to whittle away at a woman's constitutional right to her privacy and control of her body," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y).

Some 30 states have varying versions of partial birth bans, and opponents have successfully challenged most of those laws. Most significantly, in 2000 the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, ruled that a Nebraska law was unconstitutional because it did not have an exception for the health of the mother and was so vague as to leave unclear what medical practices were being prohibited.


FDA Warns Consumers on Powder With High Lead Content

The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to use a traditional-remedy powder called "litargirio" for any health-related or personal purposes because of its high lead content.

Litargirio is a yellow- or peach-colored powder manufactured by Roldan, Ferreira, and possibly other laboratories in the Dominican Republic and has been used as a deodorant, a foot fungicide, a treatment for burns and wound healing, and for other purposes as a traditional remedy, the FDA says. But, the agency warns, it contains up to 79 per cent lead, a highly toxic substance that can cause permanent neurological damage in children, and should not be used around children for any purpose.

The agency says it learned of the product from the Rhode Island Department of Health, which issued a health alert after discovering that several children undergoing treatment for lead poisoning had been using "litargirio" as a deodorant. The children's blood lead levels had climbed to as high as four times the level known to cause behavioral and cognitive problems.

The powder is sold in 2-inch by 3-inch clear packets by convenience and specialty stores catering to Spanish-speaking customers -- particularly those from the Dominican Republic. For more information about lead and a list of local and state contacts, call the National Lead Information Center Hotline at 1-800-424-5323.


California Could Be Next West Nile Epicenter

As the West Nile virus continues its relentless march to the West Coast of the United States, an expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says next year's hardest-hit state could well be California.

The virus emerged in Southern California for the first time ever late this summer, and recent trends indicate that the virus tends to erupt the following season after it first appears in a given spot, reports the Associated Press.

In anticipation of a busy season next year, the CDC is increasing funding to California to boost virus surveillance and public education, Dr. Lyle Petersen, acting director of the agency's vector-borne disease division, tells the AP.

The virus has progressed steadily westward and south down the Eastern Seaboard since it was first found in New York City in 1999. This year as of Wednesday, there have been 5,861 human cases and 115 deaths.

U.S. Cases of West Nile Virus
As of Oct. 1, 2003

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Taiwanese Find Genetic Link to SARS

A gene variant found in people of southern Chinese origin may make them particularly susceptible to SARS, Taiwanese researchers say.

The scientists at Taipei's Mackay Memorial Hospital say their findings could explain why last year's SARS outbreak was largely confined to Asian countries, according to their report in the journal BMC Medical Genetics.

According to an article in New Scientist, the gene variant produces a protein called HLA-B*4601, which is linked to a person's immune system response. The team made its discovery while examining the records of more than 150 people who had either contracted SARS or been exposed to the virus. Those of Chinese descent were much more likely to have contracted the disease after exposure, compared to native Taiwanese and people of European descent who were much less likely to carry the gene variant.

Meanwhile, an international panel of experts on Thursday praised the Hong Kong government's overall response to the SARS outbreak last spring, even though it found some shortcomings in the initial response.

It also did not single out anyone to blame, despite widespread criticism that it was health officials' slow reaction that resulted in almost 300 SARS deaths in the territory, according to wire reports.

The SARS outbreak that began last November in China and ended in the spring killed more than 800 people and infected more than 8,400 in 30 countries.


'Kissing Disease' Linked to Hodgkin's

Researchers have found a link between the virus that causes mononucleosis (the so-called "kissing disease") and Hodgkin's disease, a type of cancer that affects the body's lymphatic system, HealthDay reports.

Researchers from Denmark and Sweden report in the Oct. 2 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is associated with an increased risk of certain types of Hodgkin's lymphoma in young adults.

The study involved two steps and two groups of patients: One group was composed of 38,555 people who had had symptoms of mononucleosis and whose blood tested positive for EBV, and one group of 24,614 people who had symptoms of mono but no evidence of viral infection in the blood. The second step involved testing biopsy specimens for the presence of the virus in cancer cells.

Overall, 29 tumors were traced to patients who had had mononucleosis. Of those, 16 (55 percent) had evidence of EBV. Those whose cancer cells tested positive for EBV had a fourfold greater risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma. Those whose blood tested positive for EBV had a two-to-three times greater risk of developing Hodgkin's disease.

Even so, the authors stress, the chances of developing Hodgkin's even after a bout of mononucleosis is slim: about one in 1,000 versus one in 2,000 for the general population.

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