Health Highlights: April 22, 2007

Baby Boomers Say They're Not So Healthy After AllObesity, Poverty Spur Infant Death Rate Hike in the South FDA Reaffirms Aspartame Not a CarcinogenDrug Maker: No Mortality Hike When Anemia Drug Was Used in Clinical Trial Surgeons Remove Woman's Gallbladder Vaginally Rabies Treatment Failed to Save 3 Children

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

Baby Boomers Say They're Not So Healthy After All

Despite more health benefit options available to them than at any time in history, America's Baby Boomers may not be even so healthy as their parents.

The Washington Post reports that as the first wave of Baby Boomers -- a generation of Americans born between 1948 and 1964 -- heads toward retirement, surveys indicate they describe their own health as less than ideal.

As a matter of fact, the Post reports, a major study indicates that Boomers say they have more problems with cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure and physical exertion than the previous generation born between 1936 and 1941.

"We're seeing some very powerful evidence all pointing to parallel findings," the newspaper quotes Mark Hayward, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, as saying. "The trend seems to be that people are not as healthy as they approach retirement as they were in older generations. It's very disturbing."

One of the primary reasons for the decline in good health, researchers speculate, is that previous generations were much more physically active in their daily routines, the Post reports. The number of Baby Boomers who said they were overweight might be a key to the decline in good health, the newspaper said.

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Obesity, Poverty Spur Infant Death Rate Hike in the South

The adage "the South will rise again" has taken on a new and foreboding meaning.

The New York Times reports that after years of progress, the infant mortality rates in Mississippi and neighboring states have started to increase.

Mississippi's infant mortality rate is particularly alarming, the Times reports. Between 2004 and 2005 it jumped from an average of 9.7 deaths of babies per 1,000 to 11.4. And while the infant death rate increased for both whites and blacks, it was dramatically higher among blacks, the newspaper said.

The number of infant deaths among blacks in Mississippi in 2004 was 14.2 per 1,000 births; in 2005 it was 17. For whites the rate was 6.1 deaths per 1,000 in 2004, and in 2005 it was 6.6. Both of these figures are considerably above the national average.

Researchers say that diet and poverty go hand-in-hand in causing the infant mortality increase, the Times reports. Obesity has reached epidemic levels, the newspaper says. "The mothers in general, black or white, are not as healthy," says Dr. Bouldin Marley, one of the Mississippi physicians interviewed for the story. He said complications from obesity were the primary causes of health problems.

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FDA Reaffirms Aspartame Not A Carcinogen

After reviewing findings first presented in 2005 by an Italian-based research group, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that there isn't enough evidence to conclude that the artificial sweetener aspartame causes cancer.

Aspartame, which is used in the sweetener Equal, among others and in a variety of soft drinks and other products, had already been found safe to use after a 2005 U.S. study of half a million participants.

But when the laboratory rat study conducted by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) of Bologna, Italy said a few months later that there was evidence of increased tumor activity when aspartame was consumed, the FDA asked that the research be sent to it for review.

"... the data that were provided to FDA do not appear to support the aspartame-related findings reported by ERF," the FDA says in a statement on its Web site. "Based on our review, pathological changes were incidental and appeared spontaneously in the study animals, and none of the histopathological changes reported appear to be related to treatment with aspartame."

The FDA also said that repeated requests for additional information on the study from the ERF, including pathology slides, were never honored.

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Drug Maker: No Mortality Hike When Anemia Drug Was Used in Clinical Trial

The pharmaceutical company Amgen says it has good news for patients and investors alike.

The New York Times reports that Amgen issued an overview Friday of a closely-watched clinical trial of its anemia drug Aranesp, saying that the medicine did not increase the death rate of lung cancer patients who were using it.

Earlier studies had indicated that Aranesp and other drugs in the same class might cause blood clots, worsen cancer or increase the risk of death if overused. In fact, the U.S. Congress had already entered into the discussion about the safety of these anemia drugs.

Last month, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent letters to drug makers Amgen (Epogen and Aranesp) and Johnson & Johnson (Procrit), asking them to clarify when they knew about the possible risks associated with the drugs and how they have promoted the drugs, the Times reported. The drugs are used by nearly a million Americans a year, mainly to treat anemia from kidney disease or cancer chemotherapy.

On March 9, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the drug makers agreed to put a "black box" warning (the most serious kind) on the labels of the anemia drugs to warn about the newly identified risks. An FDA advisory panel is scheduled to meet May 10 to discuss the safety of the drugs.

While the results from the lung cancer trial are encouraging, the Times reports that a number medical experts say more research is needed to ensure that these drugs are safe to use with other diseases as well.

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Surgeons Remove Woman's Gallbladder Vaginally

In a procedure that required only minimal external incisions, surgeons used a flexible endoscope to remove a woman's gallbladder through her vagina. This new procedure, which is being used in an ongoing clinical trail, may help reduce pain, visible scarring and recovery time.

The NOTES (natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery) procedure was performed by doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. They inserted the endoscope through the woman's vaginal wall and into her body cavity. Using the endoscope, along with laparoscopic instruments inserted through the abdomen, the surgeons detached the gallbladder and removed it through the vagina.

"Advances in minimally invasive surgical techniques over the last 15 years have dramatically reduced the number of open abdominal surgeries necessary -- eliminating a great deal of the associated discomfort. This latest revolutionary advance -- abdominal surgery through a natural orifice -- represents the culmination of this progression," Dr. Marc Bessler, who led the surgery, said in a prepared statement.

"This technique allows us to make smaller and fewer skin incisions. And, in the future, some abdominal surgeries will be possible without any external incisions," said Bessler, director of laparoscopic surgery and director of the Center for Obesity Surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia and assistant professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Bessler is scheduled to make a presentation on the procedure this Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons in Las Vegas.

New York Presbyterian/Columbia is also using the NOTES technique for appendectomy, abdominal exploration and biopsy. In the future, NOTES may be performed through the mouth or rectum.

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Rabies Treatment Failed to Save 3 Children

A combination of drugs used to save the life of a teen infected with rabies did not help three other infected youngsters, says an article published Friday in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In 2004, 15-year-old Jeanna Giese of Wisconsin was infected with rabies after she was bitten by a bat. She had not been vaccinated against the disease. Doctors in Milwaukee used drugs to induce a coma and then treated Giese with antiviral drugs, including ribavirin, ketamine and amantadine, the Associated Press reported.

She survived and the successful treatment was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

However, the MMWR article said that the so-called Wisconsin protocol failed to save the lives of three U.S. children infected with rabies last year, the AP reported.

Reasons for the failure in those cases could include the strain of rabies virus, the drug dosing, and the time between infection and treatment, said Dr. Charles Rupprecht, co-author of the MMWR report and chief of the CDC's rabies program.

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