For people allergic to cats and house dust, getting away from it all is not easy. Even traveling to a dust-averse and totally cat-free environment--Antarctica, say--may not do the trick.

That's because both house dust mite and cat allergens--allergy-causing particles--can migrate by "passive transfer" to places as remote as the Antarctic, according to a new study. Most likely, the allergens travel to Antarctica on human clothing, said a team of researchers from New Zealand.

The extremely cold and dry conditions in the Antarctic, researchers noted, are "not supportive of [house dust mite] proliferation," and the continent is "entirely free of cats." The outdoor humidity in the region rarely exceeds 20 percent.

Yet dust mite and cat allergens, especially the latter, accumulate there anyway.

Researchers measured for house dust mite and cat allergens at Scott Base, the permanent New Zealand settlement on Ross Island at the edge of Antarctica. They vacuumed three living room areas and 12 mattresses, and took samples from the sweaters of 11 people assigned to the base, seven of whom kept cats in their homes in New Zealand. The samples were analyzed for the major house dust mite and cat allergens.

Cat allergen was detected in one of the three living room areas, seven of the 12 mattresses and 10 of 11 sweaters. Dust mite allergen was found in one of the mattresses and six out of 11 sweaters, but not in the living room areas.

The major cat allergen, which derives from cat saliva and other secretions, "appears to accumulate even in remote and cat-free environments," researchers concluded. "This could result in unexpected symptoms in individuals allergic to cats."

House dust mites and cats carry allergens that can provoke asthma and nasal congestion in sensitized individuals.

The study was conducted by a team from the Wellington Asthma Research Group and the Wellington School of Medicine in New Zealand. They reported their findings this month in a research letter to The Lancet, a British medical journal.

--Don Colburn


A new experimental vaccine to prevent shingles, a painful rash common in elderly people, is to be tested in a five-year study that will recruit more than 37,000 older Americans.

The study of the shingles vaccine, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was launched in Bethesda last Thursday when NIH pediatrician Philip A. Brunell, 68, an expert on the virus that causes the disease, became the first volunteer to receive an injection.

To test the product's effectiveness in preventing shingles, half of the volunteers will receive the vaccine and half will be given a placebo. They won't be told which they get. "I hope I get the vaccine," Brunell joked earlier last week.

Shingles strikes between 200,000 and 500,000 Americans each year, most of them over the age of 50. Brunell said it is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, which survives lifelong in the nerves of people who have had that illness.

The virus, called varicella zoster, lives in the ganglia of sensory nerves--collections of nerve cell bodies located near the spinal cord. Most of the time, the body's immune system keeps it in check. But in healthy elderly people--and sometimes in younger people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS--that immunity may wane. Then the varicella zoster virus may reactivate, producing severe pain and a crop of blisters in the area served by one of the nerves that carries sensation from the skin to the spinal cord. Depending upon which nerve is affected, the rash can crop up on virtually any part of the body.

The shingles rash usually disappears after a couple of weeks, but the pain may persist. "The pain can last for months," Brunell said. "And it's debilitating. It's severe enough to interfere with sleep. Some people can't even put on clothes."

Since there's no good treatment for shingles pain, the best course would be to prevent the illness. That's the aim of the new vaccine, manufactured by Merck & Co., which contains a live, weakened version of the varicella zoster virus. Brunell said evidence suggests it can prevent shingles by boosting immunity. In earlier trials, the only significant side effect was occasional pain, redness or tenderness for a few days at the site of injection, he said.

People wishing to enroll in the shingles vaccine study must be at least 60 years old and should have lived in the United States for at least 30 years, Brunell said.

Twenty medical centers across the country will test the vaccine. Those in this area include the Clinical Center (the NIH research hospital in Bethesda) and the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Washington area residents interested in enrolling in the study may call 1-800-411-1222. Outside the Washington area, call 1-877-841-6251.

--Susan Okie


Listening to soothing music and using relaxation therapy can significantly reduce post-operative pain, according to a study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research, involved 500 patients who underwent abdominal surgery during a 29-month period at one of five Cleveland hospitals. Participants in the study ranged from 18 to 70 years old and were randomly assigned to receive either music therapy, relaxation therapy or a combination of both. These participants were compared with a control group of patients who received standard surgical care.

After surgery, all participants in the study received intravenous morphine or Demerol, which was controlled by the patient pressing a button. All three treatment groups reported significantly less pain both when walking and resting on the first and second days after surgery than those in the control group, according to the study, which was published in the current issue of the journal Pain.

An estimated 23 million people undergo surgery annually in the United States and must cope with pain. While medications can help reduce post-operative discomfort, they also have many side effects, including nausea.

Based on the findings, "physicians and nurses preparing patients for surgery and caring for them afterward should encourage patients to use relaxation and soothing music in addition to medication for post-operative pain," said Marion Good, assistant professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve and lead author of the study.

--Sally Squires