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Health Highlights: Feb. 20, 2007

Merck Ends Push for Cervical Cancer Vaccine Laws Supreme Court Snuffs Huge Tobacco Settlement Thousands Near Moscow Tested for Bird Flu Medicare Should Negotiate Drug Prices: Poll Doctors Extend Hospital Stay for Tiny Florida Baby U.S. to Beef Up Some Inspections of Poultry, Meat

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

Merck Ends Push for Cervical Cancer Vaccine Laws

Facing adverse reaction from parents, doctors and advocacy groups, Merck and Co. said Tuesday that it would stop lobbying state governments for laws mandating that pre-teen girls be vaccinated against cervical cancer.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Merck, which makes the vaccine Gardasil to protect against the human papillomavirus (HPV), had initially been successful in convincing such state leaders as Texas governor Rick Perry to order the vaccinations.

But Gardasil is expensive, the Journal reports -- $360 for a three-dose regimen -- and HPV, believed to cause most of the cases of cervical cancer in the United States, is spread through sexual contact. Many parent and advocacy groups had objected to the vaccine, because it might have forced them into talking about subjects they weren't ready to discuss with their daughters. And because the vaccine's approval is new, some physicians expressed concern about possible side effects.

The Journal quotes Merck's executive director of medical affairs, Richard Haupt, as saying the company had decided that the adverse reaction was a distraction from the original goal of immunizing as many women as possible. Merck has "decided at this point not to lobby for school laws any further," the newspaper quotes Haupt as saying.


Supreme Court Snuffs Huge Tobacco Settlement

The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a $79.5 million punitive-damages award to an Oregon widow whose husband had smoked for 45 years, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The 5-4 decision reversed a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court against tobacco maker Philip Morris USA. The earlier verdict had favored Mayloa Williams, whose husband, Jesse, died of lung cancer nearly a decade ago.

In Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, justices speaking for the majority said the earlier ruling could not stand because the Oregon jury hadn't been told that Philip Morris could only be sanctioned for harm done to the plaintiff, not to other smokers and their families, the AP reported.

The decision didn't address Philip Morris's contention that the award had been unconstitutionally excessive, the wire service said.

Punitive damages are awarded with the intent of punishing defendants and deterring others from practicing the same behavior.


Thousands Near Moscow Tested for Bird Flu

Nearly 5,000 suburban Moscow residents who may have come in contact with avian flu-infected birds are being tested for the disease, authorities said Tuesday.

At least 190 domestic birds in the outskirts of the Russian capital have died since Feb. 10, the Associated Press reported. The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has been confirmed in four areas, and tests were being carried out on newly identified birds to see if they died from the same cause. Many of the dead birds have been traced to a southeast Moscow market.

No human deaths in the area from bird flu have been reported, the wire service said. Moscow is home to more than 10 million people.

Since 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed at least 167 people worldwide, mostly in Asia. Most of the human victims had contact with infected fowl, but the virus remains difficult for people to catch.

World health officials, however, worry that the virus could mutate into a form that's more easily passed between people, sparking a human pandemic.


Medicare Should Negotiate Drug Prices: Poll

Almost 9 out of 10 adults surveyed believe Medicare should have the authority to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs with pharmaceutical companies, a new AARP poll finds.

The 2003 Medicare prescription drug law expressly forbids Medicare from bargaining over drug prices, although the U.S. Senate is poised to debate legislation rescinding the ban. In a statement issued Tuesday, the AARP said 86 percent of Americans it surveyed believed the Secretary of Health and Human Services should have the legal power to negotiate with the drug companies in an effort to contain soaring prices.

"Americans understand that buying in bulk saves money; this poll shows widespread support for giving Medicare bargaining power over drug prices. Senators preparing to vote on legislation allowing negotiations should take note," the AARP said.

The group's survey found 85 percent of participants felt that drug costs were too high and that the government should leverage the buying power of 43 million Medicare members to help bring prices down.

President Bush has said he would veto any legislation requiring the government to negotiate drug prices, saying it would amount to "government interference" in the private market.


Doctors Extend Hospital Stay for Tiny Florida Baby

Doctors want a premature baby who was born sooner than any other surviving infant to remain in a Miami hospital for a few more days, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Earlier reports said Amillia Sonja Taylor was to be released after spending nearly four months hospitalized since her birth Oct. 24. A spokesman for Baptist Children's Hospital said she didn't know why doctors had changed their minds.

Taylor spent less time in her mother's womb than any infant on record who had survived, the AP reported. At birth, she weighed less than 10 ounces and was just 9 1/2 inches long.

Taylor was delivered less than 22 weeks after conception, and her doctors say she's the first baby to survive after fewer than 23 weeks gestation. Full-term births are normally 37 to 40 weeks, the wire service said.

Amillia has had a host of problems -- ranging from a mild brain hemorrhage to digestion difficulties -- although none are expected to affect her in the long-term, the AP said.


U.S. to Beef Up Some Inspections of Poultry, Meat

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing the first changes to its meat and poultry plant inspections program in a decade, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Plants with a history of problems will receive greater scrutiny, and conversely, plants that have better records of meat and poultry handling will see fewer inspections for contamination from E. coli, salmonella, and other germs.

The new "risk-based" system will evaluate the type of product produced and the plant's record of food and safety violations, Agriculture Department officials told the AP.

"There are certain food products that carry a higher inherent risk than others," said the department's top food safety official, Richard Raymond. "And there are certain plants that do a better job of controlling risk than others," he added.

For now, the new system is to be implemented in processing plants, not those that actually slaughter the animals, the AP said. An implementation schedule is expected shortly.

Raymond dismissed suggestions that budget cutbacks could be driving changes in the inspection program. "We're not going to be saving any money on this part of risk-based inspections," he said.

The department's 7,500 safety inspectors conducted some 9.2 million inspections at 6,000 plants last year, the AP said.

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