Health Highlights: Oct. 27, 2004

Americans Getting Taller and Heavier Survey Finds Poor Workplace Hygiene Common in U.S. California Company Creates Allergy-Free Cats Feds Create Flu Shot Tracking Site Experts Debate Cost of Meningitis Vaccine

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

Americans Getting Taller and Heavier

Americans are a bit taller and much heavier than they were in the early 1960s, says a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report said that adult men and women were about an average of an inch taller in 2002 than they were in 1960, and nearly 25 pounds heavier. The average body mass index (BMI) was up to 28 in 2002, from 25 in 1960. BMI is a weight-to-height formula used to measure obesity.

The average height of a man aged 20-74 years increased from just over 5 feet, 8 inches in 1960 to 5 feet, 9.5 inches in 2002. In that same period, the average height of a woman the same age increased from just over 5 feet, 3 inches to 5 feet, 4 inches.

The average weight for men increased from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002; the average weight for women increased from 140.2 pounds to 164.3 pounds.

Among men, those aged 60-74 years had the greatest weight increase. Their average weight in 2002 was nearly 33 pounds more than in 1960.

Among women, those aged 20-29 years had the greatest increase. This age group was nearly 29 pounds heavier in 2002 than in 1960.

The report also found an increase in the average height and weight of children. For example, the average weight of a 10-year-old boy in 2002 was nearly 85 pounds, compared with 74.2 pounds in 1963.

The average weight for a 10-year-old girl in 2002 was nearly 88 pounds, compared with 77.4 pounds in 1963.

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Survey Finds Poor Workplace Hygiene Common in U.S.

Only 47 percent of American workers say they clean their desks or workspaces before eating lunch there, and only 32 percent said they always wash their hands before eating lunch, according to the latest national cleaning survey from the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA).

The survey found that 57 percent of women said they clean their desk or workspace before eating, while 57 percent of men said they don't do that.

Workplace hand hygiene is more important than ever this year, with the shortage of flu vaccine in the United States, noted Brian Sansoni, the SDA's vice president of communication.

"Desks, phones, doorknobs, conference tables, fax machines, and other common workplace areas can be breeding grounds for bacteria-spreading germs. Of course, germs are spread hand-to-hand, but those hands touch a variety of surfaces we come in contact with every day," Sansoni said in a prepared statement.

The SDA survey also found that 43 percent of 1,013 people surveyed seldomly or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing. Moreover, 54 percent of them don't wash their hands long enough to effectively remove germs and dislodge dirt.

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California Company Creates Allergy-Free Cats

An genetically-engineered allergy-free kitty may prove the cat's meow for pet lovers who suffer sniffles and sneezes whenever they're around felines.

The cat is the first in a planned series of lifestyle pets from Los Angeles-based biotechnology company Allerca. The company has started taking orders for the first line of hypoallergenic cats, which is expected to be available in 2007, CNN reported.

Allerca used gene silencing technology to suppress production of a protein secreted by a cat's skin and salivary glands. It's this protein that causes cat allergies in humans. About 10 percent of the U.S. population is allergic to cats.

British Shorthair cats will be the first hypoallergenic breed offered by Allerca, which is already accepting $250 deposits from customers. The cats will cost $3,500 each. The company hopes to sell about 200,000 hypoallergenic cats each year in the U.S.

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Feds Create Flu Shot Tracking Site

The U.S. government has created a Web site where state and local officials can track the limited supplies of flu vaccine that are designated for their areas. Some officials are using the site, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to redistribute doses to the neediest clinics and nursing homes, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Access to the site is limited only to the public health officials who need it. But even some who should have access are having trouble getting in, the newspaper reported, citing Pennsylvania's secretary of health as an example.

Those who have gotten in say the site lists the names or addresses of institutions to whom the largest supplier of flu vaccine to the United States -- Aventis Pasteur -- has shipped the product. But in many cases, the names of private physicians who have received vaccine aren't included, the Times reported.

One group of high-risk people apparently won't have any trouble getting the shots -- those who work for the federal government, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The Department of Health and Human Services announced that elderly workers, pregnant women, and those with chronic health problems will be able to get free inoculations beginning next week at their offices.

An HHS subsidiary provides health care services to some 240,000 federal employees, the newspaper said, though it gave no estimate on how many of these workers might qualify for the free shots.

Nearly 2,000 members of Congress and their staffs -- including those who fell outside the high-risk criteria -- were given free flu shots this month at the recommendation of the Capitol Hill physician, who urged that they be vaccinated because of their frequent contact with the public, the Post said.

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Experts Debate Cost of Meningitis Vaccine

The lives of nearly 3,000 people a year could be saved if the federal government were to sanction a new vaccine against a virulent form of bacterial meningitis. A panel of experts was to meet in Atlanta on Wednesday to consider whether the government should fund distribution of Menactra, Aventis Pasteur's drug to prevent meningococcal meningitis.

Why the debate? To vaccinate all those people at highest risk -- ages 11 to 20 -- is expected to cost about $3.5 billion. And for the 3,000 people who could be saved, that translates to more than $1 million per life spared, a cost that far exceeds what health officials are normally willing to spend, The New York Times reported.

"How much would we have been willing to spend to save the victims of the 9/11 attacks, because that's the number of people we're talking about?" asked Dr. Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "I believe it's money well spent," said Offit, an infectious diseases expert and a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel considering the meningitis vaccine.

The newspaper quoted another panel member who said the government couldn't afford such an expense.

Meningococcal meningitis occurs when a bacteria that commonly lives in the nose and throat invades the spinal fluid or bloodstream. By the time victims realize they are seriously ill, even powerful antibiotics often can't prevent death within hours, the Times report said.

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