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Today's Health Highlights: Nov. 28, 2001

U.S. Government to Buy More Smallpox Vaccines Syphilis Cases Continue to Fall in U.S. Now, a Home Testing Kit for Menopause Flu Still a Global Threat, Experts Warn AIDS Devastating Eastern Europe Delaying HIV Drugs May Be All Right for Some 'Light' Cigarettes Take Heavy Toll

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

Bush Administration to Buy More Smallpox Vaccines

The U.S. government agreed today to buy 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine from a British firm, in case terrorists try to use the deadly virus as a weapon, the Associated Press reported.

The contract with Acambis Inc. will bring the nation's stockpile to 286 million doses of the vaccine by the end of next year, enough for every American should bioterrorists ever attack with the all-but-extinct virus, the AP said.

The vaccine can be administered four days after exposure to smallpox, and officials have no plans to resume the routine vaccinations of Americans that ceased in 1972.

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Syphilis Cases Continue to Fall in U.S.

Syphilis, the killer disease that has spread devastation through the centuries, is a step closer to becoming history itself. The number of cases in the United States fell to the lowest level ever in 2000, according to figures released today, and federal officials think they're on track toward vanquishing syphilis forever, according to HealthDay.

"Elimination of syphilis is a feasible goal," said Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention.

All of the 5,979 reported syphilis cases last year were in just 20 percent of the country's counties, largely in the South. That makes it easier for the CDC to pinpoint communities for action, officials said.

There are some hitches, however. While syphilis rates are dipping among heterosexuals, they seem to be rising among gay men, many of whom are abandoning safe-sex practices as AIDS becomes a more treatable disease. And syphilis continues to disproportionately affect poor African-Americans, who are 21 times more likely to get the disease than whites, apparently because they have less access to health care.

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Now, a Home Testing Kit for Menopause

Women wondering if they're entering menopause can now turn to the convenience of a home testing kit. The Revival Menopause Home Test works like at-home pregnancy tests -- a few drops of urine on a test stick supplies the results, the Associated Press reported today.

Physicians Laboratories, a North Carolina-based direct-marketing company, started selling the home test this week. But it's only available by telephone or the Internet; it's not available in drugstores.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the menopause test kit last January, the AP said.

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Flu Still a Global Threat, Experts Warn

The threat of a deadly global influenza outbreak, even one unleashed by bioterrorists, should not be overlooked, disease specialists said yesterday.

Flu still has the potential to become a pandemic, the scientists said at a conference sponsored by the European Union. They called for worldwide efforts to counter the possibility, the Associated Press reported.

Professor Albert Osterhaus, director of the Dutch Influenza Center, said the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1919 killed up to 40 million people worldwide. Flu outbreaks in 1957-58 and 1968-1969 killed more than 1 million people each time, he said.

Given that the most virulent strains of flu hit about every 30 years, on average, scientists are expecting another major outbreak soon, the AP said.

Terrorists could trigger an influenza outbreak, said Dr. Robert Webster, virologist at St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. "Any technologist in the world can now generate any influenza virus they wish, like the one in 1919. If the wrong people use this technology, they can determine when a pandemic will start,'' he said.

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AIDS Devastating Eastern Europe

The AIDS epidemic is raging throughout Eastern Europe, with HIV infection rates rising faster within the former Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world, the Associated Press reported today, citing a just-released United Nations report.

Economic insecurity, high unemployment and deteriorating health services in the region are driving the sharp rise in infections, which show no signs of slowing, the report said.

In Russia, for instance, more than 75,000 new cases of HIV infection were reported by early November, compared to 56,000 new cases last year, the AP said.

Like much of the rest of the world, AIDS in Eastern Europe affects a disproportionate number of young people. The main method of transmission in the former Soviet Union is through injecting drugs.

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Delaying HIV Drugs May Be All Right for Some

Asymptomatic HIV patients can safely hold off taking AIDS drugs longer than previously thought, two new studies suggest, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Recent guidelines stated that the antiretroviral drugs could be started when levels of disease-fighting white blood cells, called CD4 cells, dropped to 350 per cubic millimeter instead of the previously recommended 500.

The new studies suggest the drugs can still be effective if started when a patient's CD4 count is even lower -- at least 200. That's true even if there are high levels of the HIV virus circulating in the bloodstream.

The studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that for many patients, delaying treatment does no harm, the AP said.

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'Light' Cigarettes Take Heavy Toll

Smokers who think lightening up on tar and nicotine can spare them cigarettes' hazards are still in the dark, a new government report says.

The National Cancer Institute says that although "light" cigarettes may skimp on harmful tar, smokers puff harder, smoke more and take other steps to make sure they get their nicotine fix, HealthDay reported yesterday.

As a result, health officials said, smokers' risk of lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments associated with smoking is no lower than if they smoke high-test tobacco.

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