Health Highlights: March 11, 2010

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

More Food Products Added to Recall List

About 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products and 115,700 pounds of Tornados Ranchero Beef & Cheese roll-ups from Texas-based Ruiz Foods have been added to a recall of food products that contain a flavoring ingredient possibly contaminated with salmonella.

The ingredient -- hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) -- was made by Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas. On March 4, the company announced a recall of its entire production of HVP dating to Feb. 17, 2009, USA Today reported.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is continuously updating the list of recalled foods that contain the ingredient. To date, the list contains 105 products, including gravy mixes, snacks, soups, bouillons, dip mixes, salad dressings and ready-to-eat foods.

An FDA inspection report released this week said that Basic Food Flavors knew about salmonella contamination at its plant as early as Jan. 21, but continued to distribute HVP paste and powder products until Feb. 15, USA Today reported.

The FDA says there have been no illnesses associated with food products containing the recalled HVP.


Grocery Store Shopper Cards Used to Identify Salmonella Source

For the first time in a food safety investigation, U.S. officials used grocery store shopper cards to trace the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 245 people in 44 states.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigators got permission from patients to use their shopper cards to track their food purchases. Using this information, the CDC team was led to salami made by a Rhode Island company and then determined that pepper used to season the meat was the source of the salmonella, the Associated Press reported.

This is the first time that data compiled by supermarket chains were successfully used by the CDC to pinpoint the source of a foodborne illness outbreak.

"It was really exciting. It was a break in the investigation for sure," CDC epidemiologist Casey Barton Behravesh told the AP.


FDA Reviews Safety of Bone-Building Drugs

A safety review will examine whether bone-building drugs called bisphosphonates increase the risk of femur (thigh bone) fractures, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

Bisphosphonates, which include drugs such as Boniva and Fosamax, are designed to increase bone mass and are commonly prescribed to treat osteoporosis.

The FDA said it's looking at reports that some patients who take the drugs for several years are at increased risk for atypical subtrochanteric femur fractures (fractures in the femur just below the hip joint), said the Wall Street Journal.

People currently taking bisphosphonates shouldn't stop taking them, but should consult a doctor if they develop new hip or thigh pain, the FDA said.

Using bisphosphonates for four or more years may affect bone quality and increase risk of femur fractures, according to two studies presented Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Wall Street Journal reported.


Tasmanian Devil Colony Immune to Deadly Cancer

A genetically distinct colony of Tasmanian devils may hold the key to saving the species from being wiped out by a contagious face cancer that's reduced the population by 70% since 1996.

Australian scientists say the colony in northwestern Tasmania appears to be immune to Devil Facial Tumor Disease, which is spread when the animals bite each other's faces, the Associated Press reported.

"We think these devils may be able to see the cancer cells as foreign and mount an immune response against them," said lead researcher Kathy Belov, of the University of Sydney. "We think more animals might survive in the wild than we initially thought."

Details about the discovery of the genetically distinct colony appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Last spring, the Tasmanian devil was listed as an endangered species, and current estimates suggest the animal could become extinct within 25 years, the AP reported.


Cholesterol, Diabetes Drugs at Top of Medicare List

In 2007, elderly Medicare beneficiaries spent nearly $19 billion on cholesterol and diabetes prescription drugs. That's about one-quarter of the approximately $82 billion spent on all medications for the elderly, says a U.S. government analysis released Wednesday.

Cholesterol and diabetes medications are metabolic drugs. The other four drug classes most often purchased by elderly Americans in 2007 were:

  • Cardiovascular drugs, including blood pressure medicines, diruetics and drugs to control abnormal heart rhythms ($15 billion).
  • Central nervous system drugs, such as arthritis and other pain medications ($8 billion).
  • Gastrointestinal drugs, including anti-acid medications ($7 billion).
  • Hormones to treat cancer, osteoporosis and other conditions ($5 billion).

The analysis appears in the latest issue of News and Numbers, published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.


Flavoring Company Knew About Salmonella Presence: FDA

For about a month after it knew salmonella bacteria was present at its processing facility, Las Vegas-based Basic Food Flavors Inc. continued to make and distribute food ingredients, says a U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection report.

A meat flavor additive made by the company tested positive for salmonella and prompted the recall of more than 100 food products ranging from chips to soups.

The FDA said Basic Food discovered salmonella at its plant on Jan. 21 but continued to distribute food ingredients until Feb. 15, the Wall Street Journal reported. A two-week FDA inspection of the plant began in mid-February.

There have been no reports of illnesses related to the recalled foods containing the additive made by Basic Food, said an FDA spokeswoman.


High Failure Rate for ASR Hip Implant

Doctors are being warned that an artificial hip implant made by DePuy Orthopaedics may have a high failure rate in some patients such as women, patients of small stature, and those with weak bones.

The alert in a March 6 letter comes just a few months after DePuy, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, said it was phasing out the ASR hip implant because of slowing sales, The New York Times reported.

Some experts question why DePuy didn't stop sales of the ASR earlier, while others say the device had a design flaw that made it difficult to implant properly. The company says the ASR had no safety problems.

The ASR is not widely used in the United States, but has been implanted in thousands of patients worldwide.

In a statement, DePuy said it issued the advisory to doctors as it's halting sales of the device because "this is new and important information surgeons who continue to use ASR should have to inform their clinical decision making," The Times reported.

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