Health Highlights: Dec. 18, 2005

Israel's Sharon Hospitalized After Mild Stroke Cervical Cancer Vaccine Works Best in Adolescence Older Antibiotics Often Ineffective Against Strep Throat U.S. Team Will Test Live-Virus Bird Flu Vaccine

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

Israel's Sharon Hospitalized After Mild Stroke

Doctors in Jerusalem said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a minor stroke late Sunday, according to a reports from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press.

The 77-year-old former Likud party leader complained of feeling weak while at work and was rushed to Hadassah Hospital at about 8 p.m. local time, briefly losing consciousness during the trip.

"He suffered a mild stroke, but his condition has improved," Hadassah deputy director Yuval Weiss said in a hospital news conference. "He is now talking with members of his family and members of his office."

According to Israeli television reports, Sharon appeared a little confused but is conscious, able to move his limbs, and is communicating with his physicians.

"He is in stable condition ... his condition is satisfactory," Shmuel Shapira, deputy manager of the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, Jerusalem, told the AP.

Sharon's illness comes at a delicate moment in Israeli politics. The former general and longtime Likud leader recently broke away from the party to form the centrist Kadima faction ahead of March 28 parliamentary elections. If Sharon were to become seriously ill, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert would assume control of the Israeli government. According to the AP, it is much less clear who would lead the Kadima campaign if its leader were to become too incapacitated to run.

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Cervical Cancer Vaccine Works Best in Adolescence

An experimental vaccine that protects against the virus that causes cervical cancer may work best when given to girls in early adolescence, rather than as young adults, a new study finds.

Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix produced twice the level of immune antibodies for the human papilloma virus (HPV) in girls aged 10-14 than it did in women ages 15-25, the study found.

This suggests that vaccinating girls before they become sexually active may be the best method of protecting them against HPV, Gary Dubin, Glaxo's vice president for clinical development of Cervarix, told the Associated Press.

"HPV infections are acquired fairly quickly after becoming sexually active, therefore you need to vaccinate girls at a fairly young age," he said.

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Older Antibiotics Often Ineffective Against Strep Throat

U.S. doctors are continuing to prescribe older antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin against strep throat, even though new evidence confirms that these drugs fail to work 25 percent of the time.

A new study that reviewed the treatment of 11,426 children with strep throat has found that a quarter of patients given either of these two older antibiotics ended up back in the doctor's office within three weeks of treatment.

In contrast, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that just 14 percent of kids treated with older-generation cephalosporin antibiotics failed to improve, and just 7 percent of children receiving newer-generation cephalosporins -- such as cefpodoxime and cefdinir -- had to return to the doctor for further treatment.

Cefpodoxime and cefdinir are also "short-course" antibiotics with the added advantage of being given for just four or five days. That's in contrast to the 10 days needed for a course of penicillin or amoxicillin. Cefpodoxime and cefdinir are still only available as brand-name drugs, however, so are still more expensive than older medications.

The researchers reported their findings Saturday at the annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, in Washington, D.C.

Lead researcher Dr. Michael Pichichero said too many physicians still offer penicillin and amoxicillin as their first option in treating strep throat, despite their high failure rate. "The treatment paradigm for treating strep sore throats has been changing slowly, and endorsing the use of cephalosporins as a first-line treatment is something that needs to be seriously considered," he said in a prepared statement.

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U.S. Team Will Test Live-Virus Bird Flu Vaccine

Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health will soon recruit 30 human volunteers to test the effectiveness of a vaccine containing a live but weakened form of the H5N1 bird flu virus.

According to the Associated Press, this flu shot would differ from the standard influenza vaccines distributed each year because it contains live rather than killed virus -- potentially rendering it more powerful in inducing an immune response.

The live virus used in the upcoming trial will be genetically altered, however, so that it won't make people sick. Its hoped that the new vaccine will prime the volunteer's immune systems to recognize a more deadly strain of H5N1 if and when it appears.

Up till now, avian flu outbreaks have been mostly confined to bird populations, although experts believe 70 people have died worldwide from H5N1 infection after picking up the virus from poultry. The real fear, experts say, is that the pathogen will mutate to allow for human-to-human transmission. In that case, a pandemic could kill millions worldwide.

Thats why a potentially potent vaccine containing live virus is "a great, great idea," flu expert Dr. John Treanor of the University of Rochester told the AP. "In theory, a live-virus vaccine might actually work better [than a killed-virus shot]," he said. "We don't know that because we've never tried one before."

Tests this summer using a vaccine made with another, less dangerous strain (H9N2), showed the method might be safe and effective. Lead researcher Dr. Kanta Subbarao told the AP that the trial involving the weakened H5N1 strain is set to begin in April, pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

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