Health Highlights: Dec. 20, 2011

U.S. Government Asks Scientists to Withhold Data on New 'Bird Flu' Strain Ground Beef Linked to Salmonella Outbreak New Malaria Vaccine Shows Promise New Safety Warning for Multaq Heart Drug Lipitor Sales Plummet After Generics Hit Market

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

U.S. Government Asks Scientists to Withhold Data on New 'Bird Flu' Strain

U.S. officials on Tuesday asked scientists behind a new laboratory-grown strain of "bird flu" to not disclose details of its composition, due to security concerns.

According to the Associated Press, the virus seems to spread more easily among mammals, and government officials worry that publication of its makeup might help terrorists create a biological weapon.

However, experts at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, say publication in scientific journals of the virus' blueprint is important because it suggests the H5N1 strain may mutate more easily than was previously believed.

"It's very important research," NIH science policy director Dr. Amy Patterson told the AP. "As this virus evolves in nature, we want to be able to rapidly detect . . . mutations that may indicate that the virus is getting closer to a form that could cross species lines more readily."

Avian flu strains have, in rare cases, been transmitted from birds to humans. The fear is that a strain of H5N1 might mutate to spread easily person-to-person, sparking a worldwide epidemic. The newly engineered strain appears to do so between ferrets, which have immune system responses to flu that are similar to those seen in people, the AP said.

Based on that result, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the U.S. government, looked over the research as it was being submitted to the journals Science and Nature. The board's recommendation prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to request that the virus' full genetic blueprint not be published, the AP said.

According to Patterson, the government will allow scientists in the field to be given access to unpublished detail on the genetic makeup of the virus.

The editors-in-chief of Science and Nature have each voiced concerns over the move. "It is essential for public health that the full details of any scientific analysis of flu viruses be available to researchers," Nature editor-in-chief Dr. Philip Campbell said in a statement, adding that the journal is mulling how "appropriate access to the scientific methods and data could be enabled."


Ground Beef Linked to Salmonella Outbreak

Ground beef purchased at Hannaford Supermarkets has been linked to a salmonella outbreak that's sickened 16 people in 7 states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

The illnesses began on or after Oct. 8 and there were 4 cases each in Maine, New Hampshire and New York, and one each in Vermont, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Hawaii. Information available for 13 of the ill people shows that 7 have been hospitalized. There have been no deaths.

Preliminary tests show that the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium is resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics, which may increase the risk of hospitalization and possible treatment failure in infected patients, the CDC said.

Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets on Dec. 15 issued a recall of fresh ground beef products with sell-by dates of Dec. 17 or earlier. Consumers should not eat the recalled ground beef products and restaurant and food service operators should not serve it, the CDC said.

For more information, consumers can call Hannaford's at (800) 213-9040.


New Malaria Vaccine Shows Promise

Lab tests show that an experimental malaria vaccine is effective against all strains of the malaria parasite and the vaccine is ready for safety trials in humans, U.K. researchers say.

Scientists recently pinpointed the route malaria uses to enter blood cells and believe targeting this pathway may offer a new way of creating a malaria vaccine, BBC News reported.

This type of vaccine has shown promise in animal studies, according to research published in the journal Nature Communications.

"We have found a way of making antibodies that kill all different strains of malaria parasites. This is still early phase research in animals. The next step is to do clinical trials in people," study first author Dr. Sandy Douglas, of the University of Oxford, told BBC News.

If the safety tests are successful, human clinical trials of the new vaccine could begin within the next two to three years, Douglas and colleagues said.


New Safety Warning for Multaq Heart Drug

New safety warnings have been added to the heart rhythm disorder drug Multaq after a study linked it to increased risk of heart attack, stroke and death in certain patients, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Monday.

The study by drug maker Sanofi found that Multaq doubled the risk of heart-related complications in patients with permanent atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's chambers don't pump in sync, the Associated Press reported.

The new boxed warning emphasizes that Multaq is only approved for short-term atrial fibrillation and a related disorder called atrial flutter. It also advises doctors to check patients' heart rhythm least once every three months and to discontinue the use of Multaq if patients appear to have permanent atrial fibrillation.

When used appropriately, Multaq is a beneficial drug, the FDA said.

A number of safety concerns about the drug have been raised both before and after it was approved in the United States in 2009, the AP reported.


Lipitor Sales Plummet After Generics Hit Market

Barely a week after generic versions became available in the United States, sales of the cholesterol drug Lipitor have fallen by half, according to new data.

The plunge in sales of Lipitor occurred despite aggressive efforts by drug maker Pfizer Inc. to keep patients on the pill, including patient subsidies and large rebates to insurers, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. patent protection for the world's top-selling drug expired on Nov. 30.

There are two generic versions of Lipitor. One is made by Ranbaxy Laboratories of India and the other is an authorized generic made by Pfizer and sold by its partner, Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc., the AP reported.


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