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Health Highlights: Dec. 23 , 2002

Clock Ticks for Male Fertility Too Italy to Ban Smoking in Restaurants, Bars Implantable Device May Track Patients' Organs Army Nerve Gas Study Shows Long-Term Effects in Animals Another Advancement for Leukemia Drug Bush Gets Smallpox Vaccine

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

Clock Ticks for Male Fertility Too

When couples have trouble conceiving a child, the problem lies with the man as often as with the woman, according to some fertility experts.

Dr. Marc Goldstein of New York Presbyterian Hospital, told MSNBC that men also become less fertile with age; it's just a more gradual process for them.

Dr. Narendra Singh of the University of Washington says that sperm cells in older men are more likely to have damaged DNA. "We found that there is a sudden change around 35 years of age," Singh told MSNBC. Experts like Singh say men should be aware that their biological clock can also run out of time.

According to a Dec. 20 report on fertility treatments, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.1 million Americans have fertility problems.


Italy to Ban Smoking in Restaurants, Bars

The Italian government passed a bill over the weekend that bans smoking in most public places.

The new law, which is expected to take effect in a year, will hit the country's smokers hard. Italians, who ignore smoking bans in places like cinemas, airports, museums and other places, will face fines ranging from $25 to $250 if they violate the new law. And if they light up around pregnant women or children under age 12, the fine doubles, Pasadena News reports.

Bar and restaurant owners who want to allow smoking must create separate smoking areas. If they fail to enforce the law, owners risk paying up to $2,000 in fines.


Implantable Device May Track Patients' Organs

Tiny implantable medical devices may soon be used to track a person's organ function, experts say.

Five years ago, Medtronic released its pioneer implantable monitor for people with mysterious fainting spells. Today, the company has sold more than 25,000 of the 2-inch-long monitors, known as Reveal. The device is implanted in a person's pectoral muscle and monitors heart activity in a 42-minute loop. A doctor or nurse can retrieve the recorded data at any time and restart the loop.

Developers say the Reveal monitor is just the beginning for implantable monitors. They envision implants that track blood pressure, heart rates, even pressure in the brain of spina bifida patients who require fluid-draining shunts.

Doctors hope the monitors will cut treatment costs and result in fewer hospital visits for patients.


Army Nerve Gas Study Shows Long-Term Effects in Animals

Low levels of sarin nerve gas affected the behavior and organ functions of laboratory animals at least a month after exposure, according to new research that could provide clues to the mysterious illnesses of Persian Gulf War veterans.

In two separate Army-sponsored studies, scientists observed behavioral problems, brain changes and immune system suppression in rodents many days after exposure to doses that caused no immediate effects, such as convulsions or pupil constriction, the Associated Press reports.

Although these are only animal studies, one on guinea pigs, the other on mice, they appear the first to provide new information in an area where a lack of research has made it impossible to conclude whether Gulf veterans' illnesses are linked to low-level sarin gas exposure.

"They are pushing back the frontiers of biological effects of low levels of sarin. The evidence is building," said Dr. Francis O'Donnell, a medical consultant for the Defense Department who helps track Gulf War illness research.

Veterans of the 1991 war have suffered from various illnesses they believe linked to their service in the Gulf. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, diarrhea, migraines, dizziness, memory problems, loss of muscle control and loss of balance.

Most scientists have blamed stress. Some veterans attribute the health problems to toxic substances they encountered in the Gulf, including sarin.


Another Advancement for Leukemia Drug

Gleevec, a drug that showed significant results in combating a rare and mostly fatal type of leukemia, has passed another hurdle.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced that Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) has been approved for the "first-line treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), an uncommon life-threatening form of cancer -- affecting about 40,000 people in the United States."

First-line treatment means that Gleevec can be administered after CML has been diagnosed. The drug was originally approved in 2001 under the FDA's accelerated approval regulations.The federal agency believed more time was needed to determine whether Gleevec would continue to be as effective in arresting the leukemia as it had been when it was used after other drugs had been tried.

"Today's approval represents continued efforts by government and industry to provide patients suffering from CML with additional therapies that have proven safe and effective through on-going research and clinical trials," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark B. McClellan. "With this new use, even more patients will have access to this product earlier on in their fight against cancer," he said in an FDA press release.

Approval was based on a clinical trial of 1,106 patients with newly diagnosed chronic phase CML, according to the FDA. Half were given Gleevec and half were given a standard drug therapy. The results: The patients treated with Gleevec after one year had significantly fewer cancerous cells in their blood and bone marrow. The rate of progression of disease was also decreased in the patients treated with Gleevec, according to the FDA.


Bush Gets Smallpox Vaccine

Saying that he wanted to be among the first to get a smallpox vaccination, President Bush was inoculated Saturday before leaving Washington for an extended holiday vacation. As it was widely reported in the media, Bush said he was keeping a promise he made when he ordered smallpox vaccinations for a half-million U.S. troops, according to wire reports.

The President had no immediate adverse reaction to the vaccine, which can, in rare cases, cause smallpox to occur.

The government plans to give the vaccine to 10 million emergency workers, such as medical people and police officers, in 2003. Officials are leaving the decision up to the general U.S. population as to whether they want the vaccine beginning in 2004.


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