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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 21, 2001

Red-Meat Diet Spikes Risk of Stomach, Esophageal Cancers Top 10 Fruits to Keep You Healthy Groups Accuse Drug Makers of Fraud Researchers: We've Solved the 'French Paradox' Anthrax Vaccine Extension Confusing Many

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

Red-Meat Diet Spikes Risk of Stomach, Esophageal Cancers

If your diet is consistently high in red meat or dairy products, you're 3.5 times more likely to develop cancer of the esophagus and twice as likely to develop stomach cancer, according to ABC News, citing a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) studied about 700 Nebraska residents, and found that about a third of those who ate a lot of red meat or milk products contracted either stomach cancer or esophageal cancer, today's ABC News report said.

NCI researchers stressed it isn't necessary to give up red meat or milk products entirely, but to cut down on portion sizes and to eat these foods less often, the ABC report said. They also urged Americans to consume more fruits and vegetables.

Study participants who ate more poultry, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and cereals were up to 60 percent less likely to develop either type of cancer. Some 13,000 people developed stomach cancer in 2000, the report said, citing the American Cancer Society's most recent statistic. That same year, about 12,000 people contracted esophageal cancer.

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Top 10 Fruits to Keep You Healthy

David Letterman may have you chuckling each weeknight at his "Top 10" list, but here's one that should be taken a lot more seriously: a list of the 10 healthiest fruits.

As reported today by HealthDay, Pennsylvania researchers at the University of Scranton found that cranberries are highest in phenol antioxidants, which have been shown to protect the body against so-called "free radicals." These substances can accelerate the aging process and lead to a variety of serious health problems, including heart disease and cancer.

While fresh fruits tested best, dried fruits -- like those found in the much-maligned holiday fruitcake -- can also reap many benefits, the researchers said. In order of potency, here is their top-10 list:

  1. cranberries
  2. pears
  3. red grapes
  4. apples
  5. cherries
  6. strawberries
  7. watermelon
  8. blueberries
  9. bananas
  10. green grapes

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Consumer Groups Accuse Drug Makers of Defrauding Medicare

Twenty-eight of the world's largest drug companies are being sued by a coalition of consumer groups, who says the manufacturers have inflated the prices of drugs sold to elderly Medicare patients, the Associated Press (AP) reported today.

The suit, filed at the U.S. District Court in Boston, alleges that Medicare and individual consumers were overcharged by more than $800 million in 2000. It is the third such suit filed by consumer groups in less than a month, according to the AP. The defendants in this latest action include Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly and Co., GlaxoSmithKline, and Schering-Plough Corp, the AP said.

An industry spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America refused comment, the AP reported.

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Researchers: We've Solved the 'French Paradox'

Why can French people eat lots of cheese, buttery sauces and other fattening foods and still suffer fewer cases of heart disease than Americans?

Researchers at the William Harvey Research Institute in London have a colorful answer: It's due to a pigment found in red wine, the Associated Press (AP) reported today, citing a study published in the journal, Nature.

Called polyphenols, these pigments inhibit hardening of the arteries by limiting production of a peptide called "Endothelin 1." The peptide is thought to constrict blood vessels and cause fatty deposits to clog a person's arteries.

White wines contain little or no polyphenols, the AP reported. Ironically, red grape juice is noticeably less potent in reducing the dangerous peptide than red wine. The researchers said that an unknown factor in wine making must change the properties of the helpful pigment.

The researchers believe the pigment must come from the skins of grapes used for red wines; in the case of white wines, the skins are removed before the fermentation process begins, the AP report said.

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Anthrax Vaccine Extension Confusing Many

Confusion follows the government's latest announcement that it will offer anthrax vaccinations to thousands of federal employees who were heavily exposed to anthrax during the bioterror attacks-by-mail, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Federal scientists began sending out consent forms today, which must be signed by anyone who wants to be inoculated with anthrax vaccine. The move acknowledged the shots are an experimental effort -- and one that Washington, D.C. health officials advised thousands of Washington postal workers to avoid.

The big question was: who really needs the extra therapy?

"We're in a state of quandary," said U.S. Postal Service vice president Azeezaly Jaffer. Thousands of postal workers in several states, including Jaffer, are potential candidates for extra therapy. But Jaffer said they can't tell if they're at high-enough risk to seek it out, and they don't know where to get it.

"I fully understand the frustration," Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told AP. But, he added, because anthrax attacks have never happened before, "there's no scientific literature that says 'you get it and you don't.' It ends up being a judgment call."

With the CDC refusing to recommend that people choose one way or the other, Washington's health department has issued an advisory saying local postal workers need no more treatment and should merely watch out for suspicious symptoms. Anyone who wants the vaccine or another 40 days of antibiotics should contact the CDC directly, said Mayor Anthony Williams

Meanwhile, BioPort Corp., the nation's only maker of anthrax vaccine, took a step toward resuming routine production when the federal government completed an inspection that found only a handful of minor problems. The Food and Drug Administration, which spent the last week inspecting Bioport's labs, said yesterday that the company had satisfactorily addressed most of the procedures it wanted to see fixed before it would allow the company to ship the vaccine, AP reported.

In addition, federal officials are now saying that the anthrax investigation itself is focused on fewer than a dozen U.S. laboratories that have worked with the deadly bacteria. Investigators are working to identify the genetic fingerprints of the anthrax held at each of them, AP said.

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