Health Highlights: April 22, 2006

Eye Fungus Case Count Climbs to 176Newly Discovered Protein Causes Anthrax Germ to Explode 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

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

Eye Fungus Case Count Climbs to 176

The number of cases of a dangerous eye virus that may be associated with a popular contact lens solution has risen to 176, health officials announced late Friday.

The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 176 cases of the Fusarium keratitis virus has been found in 28 states, an increase from 109 cases in 17 states, reported April 9.

The virus can cause scarring cornea and blindness. At least 8 patients have required cornea transplants since the outbreak was discovered, the wire service reports.

Optical lens and eye solution manufacturer Bausch & Lom has already stopped shipment of the solutions ReNu with MoistureLoc and told retailers to remove the products from their shelves. The CDC recommended Friday that people throw away any remaining solutions they may have.

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Newly Discovered Protein Causes Anthrax Germ to Explode

Researchers from Rockefeller University believe they may have found a way to decontaminate areas exposed to deadly and stubborn anthrax spores.

As evidenced in 2001, anthrax spores, if inhaled and not immediately treated, can kill humans, and ridding a site from the powdery substances containing the dangerous bacterium, isn't easy.

However, as reported in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of Bacteriology Rockefeller University researchers, led by Vincent Fischetti, have discovered a protein that may more easily break down anthrax's properties and allow for them to be eliminated.

"We've found a new protein that could both potentially expand that (48-hour) treatment window and be used as a large-scale decontaminant of anthrax spores," Fischetti says in a university news release.

Basically, the new anti-anthrax solution would work by using a lysin protein (called PlyPH ) to literally bore a hole in the wall of the anthrax bacteria and cause it to explode. The researchers are planning on using the protein in a combined solution that could decontaminate buildings, transportation equipment, clothing, or even on skin.

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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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