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Health Highlights: Dec. 29, 2006

Bill Mandating Equal Coverage for Mental Health Could Pass Universal Studios Parks Ban Trans Fats 6 More Firms Cleared to Sell Generic Zocor Statins Pose Low Risk of Acute Pancreatitis: Study Herpes Treatment Fails in Animal Tests

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

Bill Mandating Equal Coverage for Mental Health Could Pass

With Democrats winning both houses of Congress, health advocates say they have high hopes that legislation requiring equal insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses will finally pass in 2007.

A 1996 law already prohibits health plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. Backers of the new legislation want to see that expanded to co-payments, deductibles and limits on doctor visits.

"I'm very optimistic that 2007 will finally be the year that our health care system recognizes that the brain is, in fact, a part of the body," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who sponsored the bill in the last Congress. "We've had majority support for this legislation six years in a row, and now we have a chance to bring it to the floor and pass it," the Associated Press reported on Friday.

The legislation has strong support in Congress but has run into GOP roadblocks. In the last session, 231 House members -- more than half of the members -- signed on as co-sponsors. The GOP leadership, which in the past had expressed concern that the proposal would drive up health insurance premiums, wouldn't bring it up for a vote, the AP said.


Universal Studios Parks Ban Trans Fats

Universal Parks & Resorts, home to movie-inspired thrill rides, is the latest theme park operation to ban artery-clogging trans fats in junk foods and offer healthier choices at its three U.S. attractions in California and Florida.

Walt Disney Co. announced in October that it will also serve more nutritious kids' meals and phase out the artificial fats at its resorts. Customers will now also have more healthy side options to choose from, including salads and fruit bowls.

Trans fats are made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. Although they're cheaper to produce and give food a longer shelf life, trans fats also increase the risk of heart disease by raising the level of bad cholesterol in the blood, the Associated Press reported Friday. The average American eats almost 5 pounds of trans fats a year.

Besides Disney and Universal, SeaWorld Orlando also pledged earlier this year to limit fats and calories in some meals and to create healthier menus. Earlier this month, New York City became the first U.S. city to ban artificial trans fats in restaurant foods, the AP said.


6 More Firms Cleared to Sell Generic Zocor

Six more companies have been approved to begin selling generic versions of Merck's cholesterol-lowering statin drug Zocor.

The authorizations, posted Wednesday on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site, bring to eight the number of companies granted sanction to sell the generics since Merck's patent on Zocor expired in June.

The move promises to be a boon to consumers, since the newer versions of the pill are expected to drive down prices of the drug by as much as 70 percent, Bloomberg News reported on Thursday.

Teva Pharmaceutical and Ranbaxy Laboratories, the first companies to file for approval of generic versions of Zocor, also known as simvastatin, had earlier won six months of exclusivity to sell a generic version of the formula. Other companies now receiving F.D.A. approval to sell the medication are Cobalt Pharmaceuticals of Canada; Aurobindo Pharma, Zydus Pharmaceuticals and Dr. Reddy's Laboratories of India; the Sandoz unit of Swiss drug maker Novartis; and the Perrigo Company of Allegan, Mich.


Statins Pose Low Risk of Acute Pancreatitis: Study

While cholesterol-lowering statin drugs such as Lipitor and Pravachol may increase the risk of painful inflammation of the pancreas, the side effect is relatively rare, a new study says.

Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that while the drugs increased the risk of pancreatitis by 40 percent, the occurrence is rare -- only one of every 300,000 people taking the drugs for a year would be expected to develop the condition.

"Nevertheless, there are likely to be many millions of people on long-term statins, which means that scores of patients will face the serious complications of acute pancreatitis," cautioned Dr. Sonal Singh, chief researcher and an instructor in the university's Section of General Internal Medicine.

The study reviewed 33 spontaneous reports of statin-induced pancreatitis from the Canadian Adverse Drug Event Monitoring System and 20 published case reports. The researchers also pooled results from two observational studies on the association between statins and pancreatitis.

"We found that all statins can cause pancreatitis, so switching from one to another will not help," said Singh. "The data also suggest that pancreatitis can occur after several months of statin use, suggesting that this is usually not an immediate reaction. We also found that patients on both low and high doses developed pancreatitis. Hence, starting at a low dose of statin may not be sufficient to prevent the side effect of pancreatitis."

The findings were published in the current issue of Drug Safety.


Herpes Treatment Fails in Animal Tests

Quigley Corp. announced Thursday that tests to determine the efficacy of its herpes treatment for infections of the eye in an animal model proved ineffective.

The company said that tests of QR-435 against herpes keratitis, in which the herpes simplex virus infects the eye, showed that the treatment did not stay in the eye long enough to penetrate the cells to get to the virus. The treatment had eliminated the virus on direct contact in other studies, the Associated Press reported.

The drug maker's Quigley Pharma unit will seek other uses for the treatment, including developing the compound to treat respiratory viruses. The compound has been shown to have an effect against influenza viruses, such as the H5N1 strain of the bird flu, AP said.

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