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Health Highlights: April 5, 2002

Pancreatic Diagnostic Drug Gets FDA Approval Occasional Toke Won't Send Your IQ Up in Smoke Teen Driver Survey Finds Parents, Peers Bad Role Models Light Flu Season Is Past Its Prime How Texas Lab Worker Got Skin Anthrax Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Also Prolongs Life Pregnant Women Drinking Less, But Binge Drinking Still a Problem: CDC

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

Pancreatic Diagnostic Drug Gets FDA Approval

An important new drug for diagnosing pancreatic illnesses is due to hit the market this summer after receiving the Food and Drug Administration's approval today, reports the Associated Press.

The drug, called SecreFlo, is a synthetic form of the hormone secretin, a digestive enzyme which gained controversy as an experimental treatment for autism.

Derived from pig intestines, secretin was also long used to help diagnose various pancreatic conditions, but it became unavailable in 1999 when the sole producer of the product stopped selling it.

The new drug, made by RepliGen Corp., is the first synthetic form of secretin to be produced. Doctors say it should help them diagnose serious pancreatic dysfunctions and pancreatic tumors called a gastrinomas.


Occasional Toke Won't Send Your IQ Up in Smoke

If you smoke fewer than five joints a week, your IQ should stay intact. However, if you toke more, your IQ could go up in smoke.

A new Canadian study has found that heavy pot use decreases a person's IQ by an average of four points, while the occasional joint doesn't seem to damage intelligence, reports HealthDay.

But the study also found that if you stop smoking marijuana for at least three months, your IQ may benefit: Former users gained an average of 3.5 IQ points after they quit.

"The most intriguing finding, certainly, is the recovery of function in these individuals," says study author Peter Fried, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

This is the first study that actually measures the intelligence of people before and after they started using marijuana. It is published in the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.


Teen Driver Survey Finds Parents, Peers Bad Role Models

A large majority of Southern California teenagers report that they've been exposed to risky and aggressive driving, and a significant number of them say some of the biggest offenders were not only their friends but also their folks, reports HealthDay.

A new survey of 442 teen drivers found that 40 percent had watched their parents cursing at other motorists, while one-in-five saw mom or dad make obscene gestures at others on the road.

"The teen-agers mentioned they were strongly influenced by their parents' driving, especially by their dads," said study author Sheila Sarkar, director of the California Institute of Transportation Safety at San Diego State University.

From 2000-2001, Sarkar and colleagues gave written surveys to 15- and 16-year-olds in high-school driving classes and driving schools. Most of the teens were from San Diego County, but some lived in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

In addition to the parental experiences, the survey found that more than 25 percent of the teens had been exposed to drunken driving. Most commonly, females were passengers in cars with drunken males

And, in what Sarkar called the most surprising finding, 36 percent of the 16-year-old males had been exposed to drag racing.

Exposure to reckless driving was most common, especially among females (64 percent). Among males, the rate was 50 percent.

Sarkar's findings are not yet published, but she has released them to the media.


Light Flu Season Is Past Its Prime

The flu season, lighter than normal to begin with, peaked in late February and has steadily declined since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

At its height, more than 25 percent of specimens tested positive for flu. The tally has since declined to about 20 percent. The agency, which does not release a count of actual cases, says the season has been lighter than normal because of the warmer-than-average weather over much of the country.

Flu kills as many as 20,000 Americans each year, reports the Associated Press.


How a Lab Worker Contracted Anthrax

A Texas lab worker who contracted skin anthrax in February was not wearing gloves when he handled vials containing spore samples, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

The unidentified private lab worker had cut his face shaving a day before he worked with the samples from last fall's anthrax mail attacks, the CDC says. While moving the samples from a storage area to a freezer, he apparently touched his face and later developed an anthrax sore on his jaw, reports the Associated Press.

The CDC says the man did not follow federal guidelines, which recommend that gloves be worn while handling biohazardous samples. Skin anthrax is a less deadly form of the disease.

The agency says the lab worker has been given antibiotics and is recovering.


Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Also Prolongs Life

People with rheumatoid arthritis who take methotrexate to ease their stiffness may be getting an additional benefit from the drug: longer life, reports HealthDay.

A University of Kansas study shows that methotrexate cuts the overall risk of early death by 60 percent -- and slashes the odds of fatal heart and vessel illness by even more -- compared with not using the drug.

Although it's not clear why, people with the joint ailment often suffer hardening of the arteries and cardiovascular disease. Methotrexate, which is also prescribed to treat certain cancers and to induce abortions, may control these problems enough to prevent their life-threatening complications like heart attacks and strokes, experts said.

The findings are reported in tomorrow's issue of The Lancet.

Methotrexate is the leading drug therapy for people with rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling autoimmune condition that affects more than 2 million Americans, roughly 60 percent of whom are women. The inflammatory disease typically sets in during middle age, striking joint lining and other tissue.


Pregnant Women Drinking Less, But Binge Drinking Still a Problem: CDC

The good news from a new report on pregnancy and alcohol consumption is that overall drinking by expecting mothers is decreasing, but the bad new is rates of binge drinking among such women have hardly changed.

The findings are from a survey of women by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that overall drinking among pregnant women dropped from 16.3 percent in 1995 to 12.8 percent in 1999.

But binge drinking -- defined as having five or more drinks at a time -- fell only slightly, from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent over the same period, reports the Associated Press.

CDC experts say the binge drinking is in fact the more concerning of the drinking patterns because it is more associated with birth defects and brain disorders in children.

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