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Health Highlights: July 12, 2006

Few Patients Taking Heart Drug Designed for Blacks Experimental Drug Doesn't Halt Human 'Mad Cow' Morning Sickness May Guard Against Unhealthy Eating: Study U.S. Senate Moves Closer to Allowing Canada Drug Imports Dioxin Risk Studies Called Into Question

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

Few Patients Taking Heart Drug Designed for Blacks

It's been 13 months since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved BiDil, a drug specifically designed for blacks with heart failure, but only two percent of eligible patients are taking the drug. The situation is causing controversy and anger among some health care workers.

Only a quarter of U.S. insurance plans cover BiDil and plans that do cover the drug categorize it as a low-priority drug with a high co-payment for patients. In addition, the new Medicare drug plan does not cover BiDil as a high-priority drug, Gannett news reported.

In clinical trials, treatment with BiDil reduced the death rate among black patients with heart failure by 43 percent and cut hospitalizations by one-third.

BiDil is the first race-specific drug marketed in the U.S. It's lack of availability angers Renee Beaman, a registered nurse and executive director of the Beautiful Gate Outreach Center in Wilmington, Del.

"I question the overall value people have of African-Americans, and this is a perfect example. You know people are dying every day because they don't have it and communities don't know about it," she told Gannett.

Dr. Theodore Addai, who took part in clinical trials of BiDil, noted that the drug is a combination of two older, cheaper drugs. Some of his colleagues are prescribing those drugs instead of BiDil, Addai said.

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Experimental Drug Doesn't Halt Human 'Mad Cow'

A U.K. study says the experimental drug pentosan polysulphate (PPS) does not appear to stop the progression of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human form of mad cow disease.

Researchers with the Medical Research Council monitored the drug's effect on seven people with vCJD or other degenerative prion diseases.

"Loss of brain function continues after treatment has started and, where measured by imaging, loss of brain tissue also continued," noted lead researcher Professor Ian Bone, a consultant neurologist at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

He and his colleagues did find that PPS, which must be surgically administered directly into the ventricles of a patient's brain, appeared to help some of the patients live longer than expected, BBC News reported.

The researchers said there was little evidence of side effects from PPS, but noted that there are risks associated with the surgery required to deliver the drug into the brain.

Despite their findings that the drug did not halt disease progression, the researchers recommended that further large-scale tests of PPS should be conducted on animals in order to better understand how the drug penetrates and spreads through an infected brain, BBC News reported.

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Morning Sickness May Guard Against Unhealthy Eating: Study

Morning sickness may be an evolutionary adaptation designed to make sure that pregnant women don't digest too much unhealthy food or other substances, according to a study by researchers at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.

The researchers analyzed data from 56 previous studies in 21 countries and found evidence that nausea and vomiting during pregnancy is associated with high consumption of alcohol, sugar, oils and meat, BBC News reported.

Cereals were least likely to cause nausea and vomiting, the study said. The findings appear in the Royal Society's Biological Journal.

Until recently, it's been believed that morning sickness is caused by hormonal changes during early pregnancy. However, recent research has suggested that morning sickness may offer certain benefits, such as a reduced risk of miscarriage, BBC News reported.

The authors of this study said evolution may have programmed pregnant women's bodies to be averse to foods with high levels of toxins or other unhealthy substances. For example, pregnant women may reject meat because, until recently, there was a high risk that it may contain disease-causing agents.

"I can understand why Mother Nature might do this. Morning sickness is always worse in the first three months, which is when the most important part of a fetus's development is happening," Dr. Maggie Blott, a consultant obstetrician at London's King's College Hospital, told BBC News.

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U.S. Senate Moves Closer to Allowing Canada Drug Imports

The U.S. Senate moved closer Tuesday to allowing Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

In a 68-32 vote, senators OK'd a proposal that would create a loophole in the Food and Drug Administration's ban on importing drugs into the United States. The plan was part of a $31.7 billion spending bill for the Homeland Security Department, whose fiscal year begins Oct. 1, the Associated Press reported.

While importing drugs into the United States is illegal, the FDA has generally not stopped small amounts for personal use. Howver, customs and border agents have been aggressively cracking down on larger shipments. Senate aides told the AP Tuesday, however, that the provision was likely to be removed when the legislation moves to a conference committee of the House and the Senate to finalize the bill.

Opposition to the legislation comes from lawmakers in both parties who say that imported drugs might not only be unsafe for consumers but also pose a terrorism risk. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire told the AP, If I were a creative terrorist, I would say to myself, Hey, listen, all Ive got to do is produce a can here that says Lipitor on it, make it look like the original Lipitor bottle, which isnt too hard to do, fill it with anthrax.

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Dioxin Risk Studies Called into Question

The methodology used to calculate just how dangerous dioxin is to humans and the environment was called into question Tuesday in a report by the U.S. National Academies of Science.

Dioxin, a byproduct of certain industries and especially those using chlorine, has been studied for 15 years by several federal agencies to assess its cancer risk. A 2003 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration called dioxin a dangerous carcinogen, but when the agency had outside experts review the report, questions were raised about the methodology used to calculate the extent of the danger, USA Today reported.

Dioxin is "likely to be carcinogenic in humans," but there aren't enough data about dioxin in humans to assess the true risk, according to Thomas McKone, a member of the panel and senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. The EPA has had to rely on animal studies where test animals were exposed to extremely high doses of dioxin, but the doses humans got were up to a thousand times less, McKone told the newspaper.

Environmental groups charged that the report is merely an attempt to stall release of a final EPA risk assessment on dioxin. The EPA estimates that dioxin emissions in the environment have been reduced by 92 percent since 1987 through regulations and industry efforts, USA Today said.

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