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Health Highlights: Aug. 25, 2009

Herbicide in Drinking Water May Pose Hazard Many Doctors Unfamiliar With Proper 'Off-Label' Use of Drugs: Report Speed Up Swine Flu Vaccine Distribution: Panel Worldwide Cost of New Cancers $305 Billion: Study

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

Herbicide in Drinking Water May Pose Hazard

A common herbicide tied to reproductive disruptions in humans may be occurring at higher levels in U.S. drinking water than is being detected by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a report issued Monday by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The council claims that the EPA may miss "spikes" in water levels of atrazine, especially in the Midwest and South, where it is applied to a variety of crops. In use since the 1950s, atrazine is a known "endocrine disruptor" and can interfere with the body's hormonal and reproductive development, according to the Washington Post.

The EPA typically checks for atrazine in water at four set times each year -- potentially missing spikes in concentrations that occur after rain or the springtime use of the herbicide, the council said.

"Our biggest concern is early-life-stage development," NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass told the Post. "If there's a disruption during that time, it becomes hard-wired into the system. These endocrine disrupters act in the body at extremely low levels. These spikes matter."

Her group noted that the EPA's own analysis found that during 2003 and 2004, 54 water systems had peaks of atrazine concentrations that exceeded the 3 parts per billion the agency considers safe.

Speaking to the Post, Steve Owens, the administrator of the EPA Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, said the agency "will take a hard look at atrazine and other substances."

A spokesman for the herbicide industry told the Post the NRDC report was alarmist. "Atrazine is one of the best studied, most thoroughly regulated molecules on the planet," said toxicologist Tim Pastoor, who works for atrazine maker Syngenta. "Those momentary spikes are not going to be injurious to human health."


Many Doctors Unfamiliar With 'Off-Label' Use of Drugs: Report

It's called "off-label" use, and it's a practice that allows doctors to prescribe drugs for purposes not specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But a new survey found that many physicians might not know when they are prescribing a drug "off label," The New York Times reported.

The typical doctor surveyed was able to identify the correct FDA approval status for only about half the drugs on a list provided by the researchers, according to a study in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, the newspaper said.

The greatest confusion surrounded psychiatric drugs, the survey of some 600 doctors found. Nearly 20 percent who had prescribed Seroquel (quetiapine) in the previous year thought it was FDA-approved for dementia and agitation. But the drug was never approved for such use and even carries a "black box" warning that it can be dangerous for elderly patients with dementia. And 33 percent of doctors who had used lorazepam (often marketed as Ativan) to treat chronic anxiety thought it had FDA approval for this use. But, the FDA warns against using it for this purpose, the Times said.


Speed Up Swine Flu Vaccine Distribution: Panel

A presidential panel has recommended that the U.S. government speed up availability of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine, develop a better system for tracking the virus and appoint a White House staff member to coordinate the nationwide response.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued an 86-page report Monday that also recommended developing communications strategies before the resurgence of the H1N1 flu, which is expected to be stronger and more widespread this fall and winter, the Washington Post reported.

The stakes could be high, the panel warned: Up to half of the U.S. population could become infected with the swine flu, 1.8 million people could be hospitalized, and up to 90,000 could die.

The regular seasonal flu typically kills an estimated 36,000 Americans each year, the majority of them elderly.

The president's council also urged the Obama administration to clarify how antiviral drugs can best be used to combat the pandemic, according to the Post report.

"Influenza brings many challenges, and agencies across the government will need to make many key decisions in the face of uncertainty about when and how the virus will play out," Eric Lander of the Broad Institute, council co-chair, said in a statement. "As we did in the spring, we can hope for the best. But we must prepare for the worst."

The World Health Organization in June declared a flu pandemic after the H1N1 virus emerged in Mexico and quickly spread to the United States and other countries around the world.

The U.S. government plans to purchase at least 159 doses of vaccine, but the initial doses aren't expected until mid-October.

Since it was first identified last spring after surfacing in Mexico and quickly spreading to the United States, the H1N1 swine flu virus has continued to produce mild infections, with most people recovering quickly. Unlike regular seasonal flu, however, swine flu seems to target children and young adults.

The good news, according to global health officials, is that the virus has shown no signs of mutating and becoming more virulent as it continues to circle the globe.


Worldwide Cost of New Cancers $305 Billion: Study

The world will see 12.9 million new cancer cases this year, with an estimated cost of $305 billion, according to a report presented Monday at the Livestrong Global Cancer Summit in Dublin, Ireland.

Cancer will continue increasing, jumping to 16.8 million new cases in 2020, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, based in New York.

Anticipating a treatment expenditure gap of $217 billion in 2009 alone, experts called for greater cancer-control efforts worldwide, the Irish Times reported.

The report did not say how much each country needs to fill the gap, but the biggest void is seen in developing countries, where cancer is increasing but treatment is limited if even available, it said.

The report was commissioned by Livestrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, with support from the American Cancer Society. The estimate was based on costs involving the 26 most common cancers and included medical expenditures, time spent by family members caring for a loved one and contributions by non-governmental agencies, the Irish Times said.

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