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Health Highlights: April 3, 2002

Drinking, Moving Among Suicide Risk Factors: CDC 'Kissing Cousins' Not as Much a Recipe for Birth Defects as Believed Painkiller Fails to Prevent Colon Cancer Quality of Life a Priority for the Deathly Ill Arthritis Drug in Short Supply Michael J. Fox Memoir Reveals Colleagues' Parkinson's

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

Drinking, Moving Among Suicide Risk Factors: CDC

Through interviews with people who came perilously close to succeeding in suicide attempts, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they've gained some valuable insights about risk factors for suicide attempts.

The list of risks associated with the suicide attempts includes drinking within three hours of the attempt, changing residences within the past 12 months, and the presence of medical conditions (mainly reported by men).

In addition, one-in-four of those attempting suicide said the attempt was made less than five minutes from the point of making the decision -- indicating many are impulsive attempts. The subjects were more likely to have sought help from family and friends than from professionals.

The findings, published in the spring edition of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, reflect data from nine papers on a three-year study of Houston suicide attempters between the ages of 13 and 34.

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"Kissing Cousins" Not as Much a Recipe for Birth Defects as Believed

The offspring of couples who are first or second cousins may not be quite as prone to birth defects as thought, but new research indicates that birth defect rates are still almost twice as high among such relatives than among couples who are unrelated.

The findings come from an analysis of six previously published studies looking at thousands of couples.

They show that close cousins can have about a 4.7 percent to 6.8 percent risk of having children with birth defects, compared to just about a 3 percent to 4 percent risk among unrelated couples, reports the Associated Press.

The analysis is published in the April edition of the Journal of Genetic Counseling.

Marriage between first cousins is currently illegal in 30 states and is somewhat stigmatized in this country, but the findings are especially significant in some other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Asia and Africa, where as many as 60 percent of marriages are to blood relations.

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Painkiller Fails to Prevent Colon Cancer

A pioneering study to see whether an anti-inflammatory drug can prevent colon cancer has produced disappointing results, but researchers say they're not yet convinced that certain painkillers won't ward off the disease, reports HealthDay.

The idea is that anti-inflammatories can prevent the benign -- noncancerous -- polyps that grow in the colorectal tract from becoming cancerous. Perhaps half of all Americans have such polyps at one time or another, and about 10 percent of those growths will become cancerous.

But a Johns Hopkins University study of patients with a high genetic risk factor for colon cancer found that after four years, 11 of the 20 placebo patients developed polyps while nine of the 21 patients taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called sulindac did, says a report in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"We found no statistical difference between the two groups in thwarting the development of polyps or subsequent colon cancer," say the researchers." However, they add "the jury is out on what this study says about NSAIDs and colon cancer."

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Quality of Life a Priority for the Deathly Ill

Seriously ill patients can be more concerned about their quality of life than the prospect of death.

In a startling Yale study, an overwhelming majority of the participants said they wouldn't opt for life-sustaining treatment if it were to seriously impair their ability to function, reports HealthDay.

These findings, which appear in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that the focus of treatments for the terminally ill should shift from specific technological or medical interventions to how the patient wants to live.

"This study tells us that what matters to patients is not only what the outcome is, but how burdensome the treatment is and how likely the outcome is," says Dr. Steven Pantilat, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of UCSF's Comfort Care Suites, a two-bed inpatient acute palliative care unit.

"The other important message of this study is patients think in terms of outcomes, in terms of what they can do," Pantilat adds. "They don't think about mechanical ventilation or, 'Do I want antibiotics?'"

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Arthritis Drug in Short Supply

A self-administered prescription arthritis drug used by about 85,000 Americans is not easy to come by these days.

The Knight Ridder Tribune news service reports that Enbrel, made by Immunex, has suffered a "temporary interruption" in availability.

Enbrel is given by injection and is a very effective anti-rheumatoid arthritis drug. Earlier this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also approved Enbrel to treat psoriatic arthritis, a condition that affects about 25 percent of people who have psoriasis, a skin condition.

The news service says Enbrel has been in short supply for more than a year. "Some patients ordering Enbrel during April and May may experience a delay in getting their prescription filled," a letter from Immunex to pharmacists, doctors and patients said. The only explanation for the shortage was that this is the "tightest time of year" for biotech manufacturing.

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Michael J. Fox Memoir Reveals Colleagues' Parkinson's

Michael J. Fox is making another round of the television interview circuit to promote his new book, a memoir.

But what he says about his life growing up in Canada and how he may have contracted Parkinson's disease more than compensates for the usual glitter that surrounds stardom.

CNN reports that Fox reveals that a number of his fellow Canadian film company colleagues also contracted Parkinson's disease, leading to a theory that the neurological disorder that affects almost 2 million Americans may be caused by a virus.

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