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Health Highlights: April 8, 2002

Drug Can Help Diagnose Pancreatic Problems U.N. Aging Conference Gets Underway Fish Oil Supplements Cut Sudden Death Risk Gynecologists Are Mum on New Fibroid Treatment Docs on Strike in South Texas Kansas Sextuplets Are 'Healthy and Strong'

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

Drug Can Help Diagnose Pancreatic Problems

The U.S. government has given the go-ahead for use of the first-ever synthetic drug that can diagnose problems with the pancreas, reports HealthDay.

SecreFlo®, which replicates the hormone secretin, can be injected to help doctors determine what sort of pancreatic problems there may be -- from bad digestion to cancer.

The drug works by stimulating the pancreas to secrete the juices used to measure the organ's functionality. It is manufactured by Chesapeake Biological Laboratories of Baltimore for RepliGen Corporation of Needham, Mass.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that since 1999, no secretin product of any kind has been available to patients in the United States except through clinical research. So, FDA approval of SecreFlo is considered a milestone.

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U.N. Aging Conference Gets Underway

The good medical news that people are living much longer - - is being received with a much less enthusiast wringing of hands this week in Madrid, where the United Nations' World Assembly on Aging is taking place.

Among the startling statistics is the fact that in less than 50 years, the number of people in the world who are over the age of 60 is expected to quadruple from the current 600 million to a whopping two billion, according to wire reports.

In opening ceremonies, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned the conference that the world's poorest countries will bear the brunt of the sweeping demographic change.

"The world is undergoing an unprecedented demographic transformation," Annan said. "In less than 50 years from now -- for the first time in history -- the world will contain more people over 60 than under 15."

"Over the next 50 years, the older population of the developing world is expected to multiply by four," Annan added.

Social security and pension systems around the world may be pushed to their limits with the aging population growing disproportionately to the working population, experts warned.

The conference is expected to produce a revised international plan to confront the aging issue.

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Fish Oil Supplements Cut Sudden Death Risk

Daily supplements of a fatty acid found in fish oil cuts the risk of sudden death by half in people who have had heart attacks, reports HealthDay.

Despite this finding from a new Italian study, the American Heart Association says it can't yet recommend these supplements. Even more discouraging, another expert says many cardiologists are not telling patients about this benefit and drug companies are studiously avoiding the subject.

The report comes from a study that enrolled more than 11,000 Italians who survived heart attacks. They all got the usual medical treatment and lifestyle advice. In addition, some took 1 gram a day of a supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish oil. Others took a vitamin E supplement, still others took both, and a control group took neither.

After three months, says a report in the latest issue of Circulation, there was a significant difference in the incidence of sudden death -- 0.5 percent for those taking the fish oil supplement, 0.7 percent for those who weren't. The difference persisted after 42 months -- a 2 percent risk of sudden death for those taking supplement, 2.7 percent risk for those who did not. The overall death rate was 8.4 percent for omega-3 supplement people, 9.8 percent for the others -- again, statistically significant.

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Gynecologists Are Mum on New Fibroid Treatment

There's a highly effective new treatment available for fibroid tumors, but don't expect to hear about it from your gynecologist.

The radiological procedure, called a uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), is relatively simple and has been shown to be as effective as more dramatic procedures, such as a hysterectomy, for treating fibroid tumors. However, new research shows most gynecologists are mum on it, reports HealthDay.

"Only about one in 10 women in our study heard about the procedure from their gynecologist. And more than half were told they needed a hysterectomy to solve their problems, when, in fact, they didn't," says study author Dr. Robert Vogelzang, chief of radiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. His research was presented today at the Society of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology's annual meeting in Baltimore.

A survey of 100 women who had UFE at Northwestern Memorial found that: 79 percent hadn't been told about the procedure by their gynecologist; 64 percent said their gynecologist recommended a hysterectomy; and 23 percent said their gynecologist recommended a myomectomy, an equally dramatic surgery that removes each fibroid.

According to Vogelzang, only 13 doctors recommended UFE to their patients. The rest, he says, either admitted not knowing about the procedure or, "at worst, they said the procedure was ineffective."

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Docs on Strike in South Texas

In protest of soaring medical malpractice rates prompted by large jury awards, hundreds of doctors in Texas' Rio Grande Valley are closing their offices today.

The one-day walkout is not expected to affect emergency services. Area physicians say their malpractice rates have as much as quadrupled over the last dozen years. Area insurers support physician efforts to institute tort reform.

Rio Grande Valley doctors are up to 20 percent more likely to be sued for malpractice than elsewhere in America, the Texas Medical Liability Trust tells CBS News. And juries are growing increasingly generous to people who allege medical wrongdoing.

The Valley contains several areas that rank among the nation's poorest communities, and doctors with burgeoning practices are perceived as having vast amounts of wealth, experts theorize.

The physicians counter that they often provide services for free to people who can't afford them.

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Kansas Sextuplets Reported 'Healthy and Strong'

Three boys and three girls born to a Rago, Kan., couple are "healthy and strong" and should be able to go home in four or five weeks, the Associated Press reports.

"They're acting like 31-week-old babies," says their physician, Dr. Van Bohman. "They're just doing marvelously."

The children of Sondra Headrick, 33, and her husband, Eldon, 32, were delivered two days ago at a Wichita hospital. She carried the fetuses for 31 weeks, the longest any woman has carried sextuplets in the United States, the AP says. A normal pregnancy is 40 weeks.

The babies were born weighing between 2 pounds, 10 ounces and 3 pounds, 11 ounces.

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