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Health Highlights: Jan. 2, 2003

W. Virginia Hospitals Struggle With Surgeons' Strike FDA Approves Drug for Rheumatoid Arthritis New Evidence Shows Nicotine Promotes Lung Cancer U.S. Obesity and Diabetes Rates Continue to Rise Autism Rates Soar in U.S.

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

W. Virginia Hospitals Struggle With Surgeons' Strike

A walkout by some West Virginia surgeons to protest malpractice insurance costs has forced four hospitals to trim staff hours and transfer patients to other hospitals, some out of state, the Associated Press reported.

Elective surgeries were on hold as more than 20 general, orthopedic and heart surgeons began a 30-day work slowdown.

The walkout -- the doctors actually are taking 30-day leaves of absence -- is to protest some of the highest malpractice rates in the country. Neurosurgeons, for instance, pay annual premiums as high as $134,000, according to the AP. The costs, in addition to the malpractice laws that strongly favor patients, are creating a hostile working environment, the doctors say.

A similar action was staved off in Pennsylvania after that state's governor-elect, Ed Rendell, promised to fight for state aid to the doctors.

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FDA Approves Drug for Rheumatoid Arthritis

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the Abbott Laboratories drug HUMIRA (adalimumab) to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The drug is produced using so-called recombinant DNA technology, a series of techniques for cutting apart and splicing together different pieces of DNA. When segments of foreign DNA are transferred into host cells or organisms like bacteria, the host cells become "factories" for the production of the protein coded for by the inserted DNA.

In HUMIRA's case, the host cells produce an antibody that binds to and blocks the human tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which is involved with the body's normal inflammatory response. People with rheumatoid arthritis have high levels of TNF in the fluid that lubricates their joints, causing the joints to become inflamed.

In a series of four clinical trials, HUMIRA was found to reduce the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in more than half of the patients tested. The drug is injected once every other week.

The drug is required to carry a warning that serious, sometimes fatal infections may occur as a result of using TNF-blocking agents, including HUMIRA. Another possible side effect of the medication is cancer of the lymphoid system (lymphoma), the FDA says.

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New Evidence Shows Nicotine Promotes Lung Cancer

Note to those whose New Year's resolutions include quitting smoking: The patch might not be the way to go.

In fact, a new study indicates more strongly than ever that nicotine may contribute to lung cancer, even if you don't inhale it directly.

USA Today reports that the finding, published in today's Journal of Clinical Investigation, includes questions about the safety of devices containing nicotine to stop smoking. These can include the nicotine patch, nasal sprays and nicotine gum.

Given a choice between everyone smoking or stopping by going on a patch, "I would clearly prefer everyone stop and go on the patch," study leader Phillip A. Dennis of the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Therapeutic Branch told the newspaper. "But the safety of long-term use of nicotine replacement is unknown."

The most common culprits contributing to lung cancer were believed to be the tar and chemical additives found in cigarettes. However, the new data suggests that nicotine actually helps promote the growth of tumors by interrupting the system that allows for healthy cell maintenance.

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U.S. Obesity and Diabetes Rates Continue to Rise

People in the United States are getting fatter every year. In fact, the obesity rate rose more than one percent in just one year, according to a study published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Just as alarming -- perhaps even more so -- is that the country's diabetes rate increased by more than one-half percent during the same period.

The number of U.S. residents designated as obese is now almost 21 percent. That's more than 44 million people, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency also said that 16.7 million Americans have diabetes, almost eight percent of the population.

The increases from 2000 to 2001 were 1.1 percent for obesity and .6 percent for diabetes.

These are epidemic numbers, officials say. "These two rates are alarming. They have a lot of implications on public health in this country," CDC epidemiologist Ali Mokdad told the Associated Press.

The wire service said the study confirmed previous findings that Mississippi is the state with the highest rate of obesity and Colorado the lowest. The highest rate of diagnosed diabetes was in Alabama; the lowest was in Minnesota.

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Autism Rates Soar in U.S.

The largest study to date on autism finds that the disorder is 10 times more prevalent in the United States than it was in the 1980s.

The study, conducted among Atlanta-area schoolchildren in 1996, found that 3.4 children per 1,000 were either mildly or severely autistic, HealthDay reports. In the 1980s, the rate was closer to four or five per 10,000 children.

If the current rate is accurate, then about 425,000 Americans age 18 or younger have autism. The study, by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Autistic children lack social development, often withdrawing into their own worlds. However, the definition of autism has changed and widened over the years to include milder forms. That may explain why the rate is higher, HealthDay reports.

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