Public Health and Drinking Water News Briefs – November 21st, 2003

In the News…
Public Health and Drinking Water News Briefs

November 21, 2003

More Than 500 Infected in Hepatitis A Outbreak

The number of people infected in a hepatitis A outbreak linked to a western Pennsylvania restaurant has exceeded 500 and is likely to continue rising for another week, according to state Health Department officials.

Three people infected with the virus have died, and thousands have lined up for inoculations since the outbreak was reported in early November among people who ate at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant.

Infectious disease experts say finding the source of the virus could be challenging because hepatitis A has a long incubation period, meaning the virus could spread to many places before it is detected. Pennsylvania health officials began warning the public November 3. Health investigators are looking at foods, including green onions, which are difficult to clean and have been linked to smaller outbreaks in other states.

Between 125,000 to 200,000 people each year contract hepatitis A, an infection that attacks the liver. It can be spread by an infected person who does not wash his hands before handling food or utensils. It can also be spread on uncooked foods, such as salads.

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SARS Vaccine Research Yields Positive Results

The World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Vaccine Research and Development, an advisory panel made up of leading SARS researchers from 15 countries, has announced that the first clinical trials for a SARS vaccine could begin as early as January 2004.

Researchers were unable to say when a vaccine might be available for the general public. The vaccine development process may take four to five years. However, a resurgence of SARS might accelerate this work. Since a vaccine will not be available this winter, health officials will have to rely on the stringent infection control measures such as surveillance, early diagnosis, hospital infection control, contact tracing and international reporting that were used last winter.

Progress toward a vaccine has been aided by researchers’ experience with vaccines for animals with the coronavirus. According to a November 9, 2003 New York Times article, the United States Department of Agriculture has licensed 170 vaccines to protect against infections in cats, cattle, dogs, poultry and other birds and swine.

Researchers still face many challenges in their quest to develop a SARS vaccine for humans. Even after extensive testing in animal experiments, new vaccines can pose many unexpected risks to human populations. Additionally, research teams must receive permission from both government regulators and ethics committees before experimental vaccines can be tested with human volunteers. Government regulators must then examine the findings from clinical trials before they issue a license for a vaccine.

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Senate Amendment Would Keep Sick Cattle Out of Food Supply

The U.S. Senate has voted to prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from using funds from the Downed Animal Protection Act to approve downed animals for human consumption. The provision was approved on November 5 as an amendment to the fiscal year 2004 agricultural appropriations bill. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) offered the amendment because of concern about the spread of infectious diseases, such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) also known as mad cow disease.

Downed animals are livestock such as cattle, sheep, swine, goats, horses, mules, or other equines that are too sick to stand or walk unassisted. Many of these animals are dying from infectious diseases and present a significant pathway for the spread of disease.

Before slaughter, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) diverts downed livestock that exhibit clinical signs associated with BSE or other types of diseases until further tests may be taken. But because BSE has no unique clinical signs that make it easily recognizable, downed livestock can still be processed for human consumption. Senator Akaka’s amendment is intended to keep these animals from entering the food chain.

The U.S. House of Representatives rejected a similar amendment when it passed its version of the USDA appropriations bill. Now, passage of this measure will depend on negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee.

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CDC to Evaluate States’ Bioterroism Plans

Next summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plans to evaluate how well each state is prepared for bioterrorism and other health emergencies.

According to a November 6, 2003 Associated Press article, the CDC will hire an independent group to conduct the evaluations next year, which will account for how states have spent almost $3 billion in federal funds for disaster preparedness. While the measurement method is still being determined, the CDC hopes to begin testing a scoring system in January. The goal of the evaluation is to find gaps in states’ systems, not to determine appropriate funding for the states.

States’ preparedness may differ drastically depending on the type and location of the threat. States are developing comprehensive programs that include ways to catch early warning signs of disease, track outbreaks, train doctors and communicate with the public.

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Segway Inventor Creates Water Purifier for Developing Countries

Dean Kamen, whose inventions include the Segway scooter, the IBOT™ wheelchair and HomechoiceTM Dialysis Machine, has developed a low-cost, low-power water purifier for use in developing nations. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, there are more than 5,500 deaths from contaminated water every day.

Kamen pursued the project after noticing that an electric generator he was working on produced about 1,000 watts of waste heat. He decided to try to use the heat to make clean water. He developed a closed system, powered by whatever fuel is available, that is able to distill the water. His device costs about $1,000 to manufacture and produces 10 gallons of drinking water per hour.

Kamen, who spoke to TIME magazine in November, plans to demonstrate the water purifier in Rwanda later in November. The Bush Administration has offered to promote his machine in the rest of Africa, and former President Clinton has invited him to accompany him on a visit to India and Pakistan. Currently Kamen is exploring distribution strategies in Bangladesh.

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