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Health Highlights: Jan. 21, 2007

Pfizer Expected to Announce Major Cutbacks, Plant Closings President to Make Health Insurance Proposals in State of The Union Almost 300,000 South Korean Poultry To Be Killed Following Bird Flu OutbreakMore Than Half of All Americans Now Living With Non-Smoking Laws Global Fund Would Subsidize Malaria Drugs for Africans Chlorinated Water Increases Bladder Cancer Risk: Study

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

Pfizer Expected to Announce Major Cutbacks, Plant Closings

Facing billions of dollars in lost patent protection and the clinical trial failure of a major cholesterol drug, Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company, is expected to announce plans that may include slashing more than $2 billion in operating costs, including closing some plants and releasing 10 percent of its work force.

The Associated Press reports that Pfizer's new Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Kindler is expected to announce a plan that counteracts some huge losses sparked by lost patent protection within the next three years including Lipitor, the company's top selling drug, which lowers cholesterol

Lipitor is one of a number of Pfizer drugs losing patent protection by 2010, the news service reports, totaling almost $14 billion in annual revenue.

Additionally, Pfizer had to end clinical trials late last year on its new cholesterol drug torcetrapib, after a number of deaths occurred. According to Pfizer spokesman Paul Fitzhenry, in a trial of 15,000 patients, 82 of those taking the combination of torcetrapib and Lipitor had died, compared to 51 deaths among those taking Lipitor alone.

There had been concerns about torcetrapib, which was designed to be taken with a statin like Lipitor, because a recent study showed it triggered a slight increase in blood pressure.

The last major successful drug introduced by Pfizer was the erectile dysfunction medication Viagra, which came onto the market in 1998.

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President to Make Health Insurance Proposals in State of The Union

One of the cornerstones of President Bush's State of the Union address Jan. 23 will be proposals to combat the rising costs of health care, the New York Times reports.

Health care, immigration and energy sources and costs are three main topics in the President's address, the newspaper said.

President Bush's health care initiative has two principal focuses, according to the Times: a tax on some individuals whose health insurance plans cost more than the national average; and a tax benefit for the poor who buy health insurance or people who may buy private health insurance instead of having a company plan.

The President gave a broad outline of his intentions in his Saturday radio address: "I will propose a tax reform designed to help make basic private insurance more affordable, whether you get it through your job or on your own."

Reaction from at least one influential Democratic congressman was negative. "It's a bad policy," The Times quotes Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, as saying. Rangel's opinion carries weight, because he's the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax legislation. "We are trying to bring tax relief to the middle class. This proposal is inconsistent with what the majority is seeking in the House and the Senate," Rangel is quoted as saying.

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Almost 300,000 South Korean Poultry To Be Killed Following Bird Flu Outbreak

Yet another massive poultry kill is being scheduled in the wake of the discovery of an outbreak of avian flu.

This time, the Associated Press reports, the virus was discovered for the fifth time in the past three months in South Korea. After being quarantined, 273,000 poultry will be killed to head off the spread of the strain of H5N1 flu, the type of bird flu that has caused the deaths of millions of birds worldwide.

The latest outbreak occurred earlier this week on a chicken farm about 60 miles south of Seoul, the wire service quotes a Korean Ministry of Agriculture as saying.

There may be another 386,000 chickens and ducks killed within the next day or two, the official told the A.P., in order to eliminate the outbreak from the South Korean poultry population.

Since avian flu was first identified, 160 humans have died, but health officials say that all of them contracted the disease from contact with birds and not from other humans.

Still, the World Health Organization and other medical agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to monitor outbreaks for any mutation that could cause a human pandemic.

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More Than Half of All Americans Now Living With Non-Smoking Laws

More than half of the American population now live in states that have at least one law restricting where a person can smoke.

The Associated Press reports that with the passing of a Nevada law in December 2006, 50.2 percent of all Americans live where smoking has been banned in public places, such as office buildings, bars or restaurants.

"We think 100 percent of Americans will live in smoke-free jurisdictions within a few years," the wire service quotes Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights as saying.

In all, the A.P. says 22 states and 577 municipalities have some sort of smoking restriction law.

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Global Fund Would Subsidize Malaria Drugs for Africans

Delegates to an international forum sponsored by the World Bank have proposed a global fund to subsidize the purchase of a new generation of anti-malaria drugs for people in Africa, where malaria kills about 1 million people a year.

The new drugs -- artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) -- are needed to replace chloroquine and other older drugs that have become ineffective. Currently, ACTs are too expensive for most Africans.

The proposed fund would require about $80 million to $100 million from donor countries in the first year, increasing to about $250 million per year after that, the Associated Press reported.

The malaria drugs would be distributed by government health officials and by local stores.

ACTs are based on Chinese herbal medicine for malaria, but contain a combination of ingredients meant to make it difficult for the malaria parasite to develop resistance to the new drugs, as happened with the older generation drugs, the AP reported.

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Chlorinated Water Increases Bladder Cancer Risk: Study

People who drink or bathe, shower and swim in chlorinated water may be at increased risk for bladder cancer, says a Spanish study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The researchers compared 1,200 people who were exposed to chlorination byproducts known as trihalomethanes (THM) to a similar number of people who weren't exposed, The Australian reported.

People who lived in areas where THM concentrations in the water were more than 49 micrograms per liter were twice as likely to develop bladder cancer than people who lived in areas where concentrations were less than 8 mcg per liter.

The study also found that people who were exposed to more than 35 mcg of THM a day through drinking water had a 35 percent increased risk of bladder cancer, The Australian reported.

People who showered or bathed in chlorinated water were 83 percent more likely to develop bladder cancer, and people who swam in chlorinated pools were 57 percent more likely to develop the disease.

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