Health Highlights: Feb. 18, 2008

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

U.S. Orders Largest Beef Recall in History

In what is being billed as the largest beef recall in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sunday ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef produced by a California slaughterhouse that is the subject of an animal-abuse investigation.

The recall from the Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which provided meat to school lunch programs, affects beef products dating back to Feb. 1, 2006, according to an Associated Press report. There have been no reports of illnesses linked to the recalled meat, and USDA officials termed the health threat small.

WHAT TO KNOW
    • U.S. Orders Largest Beef Recall in History
    • More Pain Patches Recalled
    • Heavy Cell Phone Use Increases Mouth Cancer Risk: Study
    • Disappointing Results for Anti-HIV/AIDS Gel
    • FDA Proposes Changes to Drug Use Rules
    • Ocean Species' Changes Seen in Global Warming, Scientist Warns

Officials estimate that about 37 million pounds of the recalled beef went to school programs, but they believe most of the meat has already been eaten, according to Dr. Dick Raymond, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety.

Most of the beef was sent to distribution centers in bulk packages, and the USDA was planning to work with the distributors to determine how much meat remains, the AP reported.

U.S. officials recently suspended operations at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover Humane Society video showed crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts. Felony and misdemeanor charges were filed last week against some employees of the company, and an official investigation continues.

Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease.

About 150 school districts around the nation have stopped using ground beef from Hallmark Meat Packing Co., which is associated with Westland. Two fast-food chains, Jack-In-the-Box and In-N-Out, said they would not use beef from Westland/Hallmark, the AP reported. Other chains, such as McDonald's and Burger King, said they do not buy beef from Westland.

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More Pain Patches Recalled

A defect that could cause an overdose in patients or caregivers has led to the second recall in a week of patches containing the prescription painkiller fentanyl, the Associated Press reported.

The new recall, announced Monday, covers patches sold in the United States by Actavis South Atlantic LLC. That name appears on the outer carton, while the pouches that contain the patches have the company's former name, Abrika Pharmaceuticals Inc., printed on them.

The recall includes 25-microgram-per-hour, 50-microgram-per-hour, 75-microgram-per-hour and 100-microgram-per-hour patches with expiration dates of May through August 2009, the AP reported.

A potential defect in the patches may cause them to leak, resulting in patients or caregivers coming into direct contact with the powerful opioid drug inside the patch. An overdose of the drug could lead to difficulty breathing and a potentially fatal overdose.

At this point the company hasn't received any reports of injuries linked to the patch defect.

Consumers are advised to refrain from handling damaged patches, which should be flushed down the toilet. Skin that comes into contact with the gel inside the patches should be thoroughly rinsed with water, but not washed with soap, the AP reported.

Last Tuesday, a recall of fentanyl patches was announced by PriCara, a division of Johnson & Johnson.

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Heavy Cell Phone Use Increases Mouth Cancer Risk: Study

An Israeli study reports that people who use cell phones for many hours a day are 50 percent more likely to develop mouth cancer than those who never use cell phones, and that cell phone users in rural areas may be at increased risk for cancer because cell phones need to emit higher levels of radiation in order to make contact with fewer available antennas.

The Tel Aviv University study looked at 500 people with benign and malignant tumors of the salivary gland and 1,300 healthy people. People who used cell phones for many hours a day were 50 percent more likely to develop a tumor of the parotid gland than infrequent users, the Telegraph reported.

The parotid gland -- the largest salivary gland -- is located near the jaw and ear, where cell phones are typically held during use. The findings appear in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Many previous studies have found no link between cell phone use and increased cancer risk. But the author of this new study noted that Israelis were quick to adopt cell phones and are exceptionally heavy users, the Telegraph reported.

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Disappointing Results for Anti-HIV/AIDS Gel

An anti-HIV/AIDS vaginal gel called Carraguard was ineffective in reducing rates of new HIV infection in a study of about 6,000 South African women, the Associated Press reported.

Researchers said one reason for the disappointing results may have been low use of the gel. Only 10 percent of the women said they used the gel as directed every time they had sex.

The women in the study randomly received either the Carraguard gel or a placebo gel. All the women received condoms and safe-sex counseling. At the end of the study, the rate of new HIV infection among women using the Carraguard gel was 3.3 per 100, compared with 3.7 per 100 among women using the placebo gel, the AP reported.

The study was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The researchers did find that reported condom use doubled from 33 percent to 64 percent and there was a decline in the spread of other types of sexually-transmitted infections.

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FDA Proposes Changes to Drug Use Rules

Critics and proponents have plenty to say about proposed changes to FDA regulations covering unapproved use of medicines and medical devices, The New York Times reported.

Currently, FDA approvals of medicines and medical devices limit how companies can market the products. For example, a drug approved to treat only breast cancer cant be sold as a lung cancer treatment, even if some research suggests the drug may benefit lung cancer patients.

Under the proposed changes, companies would be allowed to give doctors copies of medical journal articles about product uses that haven't been approved or vetted by the FDA. In addition, companies would not have to promise to adequately test the unapproved use discussed in such articles, the Times reported.

Proponents say the proposed changes will benefit patients because doctors will be able to quickly learn about unapproved uses that could save lives. Critics say the move will compromise patient safety.

Public comments are being accepted about the proposed changes and the FDA will take the matter up for final consideration in 60 days.

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Ocean Species' Changes Seen in Global Warming, Scientist Warns

In the last century, coal miners brought canaries with them into the mine, because the birds were sentries for any change in the air supply. If the canary keeled over, the humans knew they had to get to the surface.

The new age "canaries" are sea snails called pteropods, the food supply for a great many sea species. These small creatures are undergoing physiological changes that may spell future catastrophe, according to a molecular ecologist who gave a report over the weekend to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Gretchen Hofmann, associate professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, collected pteropods in Antarctica and noticed changes in their physical makeup. This may be caused by an increasingly acidic ocean because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, she said in a university news release.

"They (the pteropods) are harbingers of change," she said. "It's possible by 2050 they may not be able to make a shell anymore. If we lose these organisms, the impact on the food chain will be catastrophic."

The acidity makes the animals less able to withstand warmer waters, and they are smaller now, she added. "These observations suggest that warming and acidifying seas will be a complex environment for future marine organisms," Hofmann said.

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