Health Highlights: April 21, 2006

Merck Found Liable for Another Vioxx Death Battle Over Custom-Made Menopause Drugs Pregnant Women Should Reduce Hours at Stressful Jobs: Study Americans Split on Government's Ability to Deal With Bird Flu: Poll Medicare Drug Beneficiaries Face Increased Costs Next Year TV Report Questions Sharon's Stroke Treatment

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

Merck Found Liable for Another Vioxx Death

A South Texas jury has found Merck & Co. liable for the death of a 71-year-old man who had a fatal heart attack five years ago within a month of taking the painkiller Vioxx.

The company was ordered to pay $7 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

The jury of 10 men and two women in Rio Grande City deliberated for more than eight hours over two days before returning the verdict, the sixth delivered in a string of lawsuits against the manufacturer.

The verdict brings Merck's scorecard in trials over the once-popular painkiller to three wins and three losses.

"Merck will appeal," spokesman Kent Jarrel told the Associated Press.

In the prior two losses, the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company was ordered to pay one plaintiff $253.4 million, which will be reduced to $26 million under Texas caps on punitive damages; and the other $13.5 million.

In the current case, attorneys for the family of Leonel Garza said that while Garza had a history of heart problems, his veins had been cleared and a stress test showed less than a 2 percent risk of heart attack within a year. They said he had taken Vioxx for almost a month before he died in April 2001.

Merck lawyers argued that there was no proven link between heart problems and use of the drug for less than 18 months and said that there was doubt whether Garza had taken the drug for more than a week. His heart attack was the end result of 23 years of heart disease, they claimed according to the AP report.

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Battle Over Custom-Made Menopause Drugs

Drug maker Wyeth is demanding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration crack down on specialized compounding pharmacies that make custom-made hormone drugs to treat menopause. The drugs are made according to a doctor's prescription.

In response to Wyeth's request to the FDA, thousands of women who use the custom-made treatments have deluged the agency with letters opposing any move against compounding pharmacies, the Associated Press reported.

Many women turned to the products sold by compounding pharmacies after a 2002 federal study found that replacement hormones -- HRT -- made by drug companies increased the risk of heart attacks, strokes and breast cancer, the news service said.

Wyeth charges that some compounding pharmacies dupe women with products that may pose serious health risks. It wants the FDA to use seizures, injunctions, and warning letters to go after these pharmacies, the AP reported.

The custom-made estrogen, progesterone and testosterone products sold by compounding pharmacies are not FDA-approved. The FDA said it needs more time to review and respond to Wyeth's petition and the 27,000 comments about it.

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Pregnant Women Should Reduce Hours at Stressful Jobs: Study

Pregnant women with stressful full-time jobs should consider reducing their work week to about 24 hours to prevent health problems in their babies, Dutch researchers say.

Their study of 7,000 pregnant women in Amsterdam found that expectant mothers who work more than 32 hours a week in high-stress jobs were at increased risk for the dangerous blood-pressure pregnancy condition pre-eclampsia. They were also more likely to have low birth-weight babies and babies who cried excessively, Agence France Presse reported.

"If you want to be on the safe side I would say that they should not work more than 24 hours a week, a three-day work week," said researcher Gouke Bonsel, a social health professor.

Low birth-weight babies born to women with stressful full-time jobs averaged about 150 grams lighter than normal, about the same as babies of women who smoke during pregnancy, AFP reported.

The stress levels of the women in the study were assessed by checking levels of known stress hormones in their blood and by having them complete standardized questionnaires.

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Americans Split on Government's Ability to Deal With Bird Flu: Poll

Only 48 percent of Americans are confident that the federal government will deal effectively with bird flu if it appears in the United States, says an Associated Press-Ipsos survey released Friday.

The survey also found that most people support strong measures if there's a bird-flu outbreak in humans. The measures include: Closing schools; quarantining people who've been exposed to bird flu; closing the borders to visitors from countries that have had bird-flu outbreaks; encouraging people to work from home; and offering experimental vaccines or drugs to people who want them.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they believe U.S. birds will become infected with avian flu. A third of them worry that someone in their family will be infected by the virus.

Half the people said they think bird flu will kill them if they catch it. That suggests fear is likely to spread if the virus shows up in the United States, the AP reported.

The poll of 1,001 adults was conducted this week.

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Medicare Drug Beneficiaries Face Increased Costs Next Year

The six million poorest beneficiaries may pay as much as seven percent more next year for the new U.S. Medicare prescription drug benefit.

While these beneficiaries have no annual co-payment and don't have to contend with a coverage gap, their co-payments for generic drugs will increase from $2 to $2.15 and from $5 to $5.35 for brand-name drugs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

These increases may seem small, but many state-sponsored Medicaid plans previously charged no co-payments. These Medicare co-payments may prove too much of a burden for low-income people who require 10 or more prescription drugs, say independent experts and state officials.

These and other cost increases were included when the new prescription drug plan was designed, the Times reported. Congress decided to index the share paid by beneficiaries to yearly increases in prescription drug spending.

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TV Report Questions Sharon's Stroke Treatment

Doctors said it was a mistake to give former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon large doses of a blood thinner after he suffered a mild stroke late last year, according to an Israeli TV report broadcast Thursday.

Sharon has been in a coma since he suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4, two weeks after he had the minor stroke.

The report on Channel 2 TV quoted doctors at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem as saying the anticoagulants given to Sharon after the minor stroke, which was caused by a blood clot, may have led to the later debilitating hemorrhagic stroke, the Associated Press reported.

Brief excerpts of the report were broadcast Thursday. The TV station said it would air fuller versions on Friday and again next week.

Hadassah Hospital officials contested the report's conclusions. The interpretation that the doctors admitted a mistake was "in the imagination of the reporter," said a statement released by the hospital, the AP reported.

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