Health Highlights: April 23, 2006

Eye Fungus Case Count Climbs to 176Bird Flu Not Likely to be Spread by Pigeons, Experts SayU.S. Prisons Don't Cause High HIV Rate, Study SaysNewly Discovered Protein Causes Anthrax Germ to Explode Merck Found Liable for Another Vioxx Death Battle Over Custom-Made Menopause Drugs

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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Bird Flu Not Likely to be Spread by Pigeons, Experts Say

America can probably rule out one of its most common birds as an avian flu carrier, the Associated Press reports.

The ubiquitous pigeon, found in every American city and in most parts of the U.S.A. countryside as well, is not likely to carry the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain for long, the wire service reports, despite an incident earlier this year of a 14-year-old Iraqi pigeon seller dying from bird flu.

But there may have been other reasons for his death, experts say, and no other evidence has indicated that pigeons would be major carriers of the disease were it to come to North America.

According to the A.P., test indicate that pigeons will contract bird flu only when exposed to it very high does, and even then, would be carriers for a short amount of time. Rather, health experts speculate, avian flu is more likely to be spread through migratory birds, such as geese.

"Pigeons aren't a big worry," the wire service quotes Rex Sohn, a wildlife disease specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. as saying. "But to make absolute predictions that pigeons won't be susceptible to this virus, in whatever form it arises in North America, is not something you want to say."

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U.S. Prisons Don't Cause High HIV Rate, Study Says

While male prisoners have a higher HIV infection rate than the general population, they're not getting the virus after being incarcerated, a new study shows.

The Washington Post reports that U.S. government research into 45,000 men in Georgia prisons between 1988 and 2005 found that about 90 percent of those who were HIV-positive had been infected before they arrived. Only 88 men became infected in prison during the 17 period the study was conducted, the Post reports.

The research was done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it may refute a widely-held belief that U.S. prisons are breeding grounds for AIDS, the disease caused by HIV and that incarceration is a direct cause of the high rate of HIV among black men, the newspaper reports.

"Media coverage of this issue over the past several years has been characterized by misperceptions that HIV transmission in prisons is widespread," The Post quotes CDC spokeswoman Terry Butler as saying. There is little evidence that this is so, she added.

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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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