Health Highlights: Oct. 7, 2007

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

Sam's Club Orders Nationwide Recall of Beef Patties

Just as one meat producer announced that it is closing down because of a massive beef patty recall (see next item), the Wal-Mart chain's Sam's Club stores have announced a nationwide recall of beef patties that are believed to be responsible for four cases of E. coli bacteria poisoning in Minnesota.

The Associated Press reports the ground beef patties were produced by Cargill Inc., whose U.S. offices are based in Wayzata, Minn. Sam's Club identified the suspect meat as having an expiration date of Feb. 12, 2008 and were coded UPC 0002874907056 Item #700141.

    • Sam's Club Orders Nationwide Recall of Beef Patties
    • U.S. Meat Company Folds After Massive Recall
    • Medicare Drug Program has Marketing and Distribution Abuses, Newspaper Probe Finds
    • Government Grant Awarded to Find Therapy for Tinnitus
    • Former U.S. Track Hero Admits Steroid Use
    • Appendix is More Than an Annoyance, Scientists Say

Cargill announced a voluntary nationwide recall of more than 840,000 lbs. of the frozen beef patties Saturday. A company spokesman told the wire service that the packages carried the dates Aug. 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17, and that every package had the number "Est.924A" inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The children became sick between Sept. 10 and Sept. 20, the wire service reports. Two were hospitalized, and one remained in the hospital Saturday, the A.P. reports.

The beef patties were frozen and sold under the name American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties in three Minneapolis-area stores, but they may be in other Sam's Club outlets as well, health officials told the wire service.

"We can't be certain that meat from other stores is not involved, since the brand... was likely sold at other Sam's Club locations," Heidi Kassenborg, acting director of the dairy and food inspection division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, is quoted as saying.

The E. coli bacterium causes diarrhea and abdominal cramping, usually two-to-five days after the tainted food is consumed. Left untreated, it can cause more serious complications, including kidney failure.


U.S. Meat Company Folds After Massive Recall

Topps Meat Co., a leading U.S. supplier of frozen hamburgers, announced Friday that it was going out of business after a massive recall in September of 21.7 million pounds of frozen beef, The New York Times reported.

The recall was linked to beef patties tainted with the E.coli 0157:H7 strain of bacteria. The burgers were made at the company's Elizabeth, N.J. plant, the Times said.

Health officials first reported a case of illness linked to the meat on July 5, when an 18-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was sickened. On July 8, another case surfaced in New Jersey.

"This is a tragedy for all concerned," Topps CEO Anthony D'Urso said in a statement. "In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large."


Medicare Drug Program has Marketing and Distribution Abuses, Newspaper Probe Finds

The new drug benefit program for U.S. Medicare recipients has a lot of problems, the New York Times reports, including deceptive sales tactics on the part of some private insurers, claims being improperly denied, and lack of response to consumers' questions and complaints.

Sometimes, the newspaper reports in an exclusive investigative article, the denial of appropriate medication is life-threatening, especially for patients with HIV and AIDS, and while Medicare officials have ordered corrections to be made when they learn about drug program errors, the problems are a long way from being solved.

The Times says it examined 91 audit reports of the Medicare drug program begun in 2006, and found that among the 11 insurance companies fined $770,000 for "marketing violations," were three of the nation's largest: UnitedHealth, Humana and WellPoint.

Yet, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services say they're satisfied with how quickly they have responded to the abuses, and that the auditing program is showing its effectiveness. "The start-up period is over," Kerry N. Weems, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Times. "I am simply not going to tolerate marketing abuses."


Government Grant Awarded to Find Therapy for Tinnitus

At one time or another, almost every person experiences a "ringing" in his or her ears. For many, the phantom sound known as tinnitus can be much more than an annoyance. At its worst, it can affect a person's hearing to the point of distraction.

Scientists at the New York State University at Buffalo have been studying the causes for tinnitus and have announced receiving a $2.9 million U.S. government grant to see if a therapy can be developed.

According to a university news release, researchers have spent the last 10 years training laboratory rats to signal when the tinnitus sound occurs. But humans have also been part of the research, principal investigator Richard Salvi says in the news release.

"By using positron emission tomography [known as PET scanning] to view the brain activity of people with tinnitus we've been able to show that these phantom auditory sensations originated somewhere in brain, not in the ear," Salvi said. "That changed the whole research approach."

The ultimate goal, Savli said, is to find the right drug(s) to suppress constant noise-induced tinnitus.


Former U.S. Track Hero Admits Steroid Use

Former American track star Marion Jones pleaded guilty Friday to lying to U.S. federal agents about her use of performance-enhancing steroids, The New York Times reported.

Jones pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to federal agents about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. She was also to plead guilty to one count of making false statements to federal agents in connection with a separate check fraud case. She appeared Friday afternoon at the U.S. District Court in White Plains.

Jones, 31, won three gold and two bronze medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. She's been under a cloud of suspicion for years, but had repeatedly denied using banned substances, the Times reported.

An admission to using performance-enhancing drugs would likely result in Jones being stripped of her five Olympic medals.


Appendix is More Than an Annoyance, Scientists Say

Of what possible use can the appendix be?

The small, lower abdominal organ, believed to have been a digestive aid in prehistoric humans, is nothing more than a sometimes-annoying appendage today, and the only time it's addressed in medicine is when it becomes inflamed.

But Duke University scientists say they believe they have found a practical use for the appendix in homo sapiens, the Associated Press reports.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology, the Duke researchers say the appendix acts as a "rebooting" mechanism to restore the massive amount of bacteria that assist in digestion.

It's needed, they say, because certain diseases, such as amoebic dysentery, can literally wipe out the supply of the intestine's helpful bacteria and cause all sorts of digestive problems.

The appendix "acts as a good safe house for bacteria," Duke professor Bill Parker, a study co-author, told the A.P.. It also is a breeding factory to produce the good germs lost to disease, he added.

Parker told the wire service the appendix needed to be removed if it became inflamed and couldn't be treated medically. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the annual number of deaths in the United States from appendicitis to be between 300 and 400.