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Health Highlights: July 19, 2006

Bush Vetoes Stem Cell Research Bill FDA Issues Advisory on Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy Supply Can't Meet Demand for Meningitis Vaccine Medicare Plan D Headaches Persist: Report FDA Approves Two-In-One Hepatitis B Test

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

Bush Vetoes Stem Cell Research Bill

As he had promised, President Bush on Wednesday cast the first veto of his presidency, rejecting legislation to ease limits on federal funding for research on stem cells obtained from embryos.

"This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our society needs to respect, so I vetoed it," Bush said at the White House where he was surrounded by 18 families who "adopted" frozen embryos that were not used by other couples, and then used those leftover embryos to have children, the Associated Press reported.

Bush's action came a day after the Senate approved the legislation, 63-37, four votes short of the two-thirds margin needed to override. White House officials and Republican congressional leaders claimed it was unlikely that Congress could override the veto.


FDA Issues Advisory on Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration highlighted on Wednesday the findings of two studies on the use of antidepressants -- with contradictory messages for pregnant women who use the drugs.

One study found that women who stopped using a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drug such as Celexa, Prozac or Zoloft during their pregnancy were five times more likely to experience a return of depression, compared to women who did not interrupt use of the drug.

However, a second study found that maternal use of SSRIs during pregnancy may, in rare cases, boost a newborn's risk for a potentially fatal respiratory condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension (PPHN). Babies were six times more likely to develop PPHN if their mother took an SSRI after her 20th week of pregnancy compared to mothers who did not.

The FDA also noted that the labeling for one SSRI, Paxil, was recently changed after another study found an increased risk for heart defects in babies born to mothers who used the antidepressant during their first trimester of pregnancy.

The FDA does not recommend that pregnant women at risk for depression either take or forego the use of antidepressants, but says the findings "should be considered" in treatment decisions. In the meantime, the agency advises that "women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant should not stop any antidepressant medication without first consulting their physician."


Supply Can't Meet Demand for Meningitis Vaccine

There's not enough of the new meningitis vaccine Menactra to meet demand in the United States and priority should be given to older teens, say health officials.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that doctors continue giving the vaccine to young people entering high school or college but defer providing it to 11- and 12-year-olds.

"One thing we know about this vaccine is that demand goes up in the summer in anticipation of back-to-college and back-to-school," the CDC's Jeanne Santoli told USA Today.

Menactra was approved in the United States last year for people ages 11 to 55. The vaccine is made by Sanofi Pasteur, which is building a new plant to make more of the vaccine. The plant won't be in operation until 2008.

Demand for the vaccine is expected to decline in the fall, which should ease the shortage. Doctors who postpone giving the vaccine to 11- to 12-year-olds should keep track of those children and call them back for a vaccination when there is more Menactra available, Santoli told USA Today.


Medicare Plan D Headaches Persist: Report

Six months after it was introduced, the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit is still causing headaches for many beneficiaries, says a report released Wednesday by the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

"The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency that administers Medicare, continues to tout Part D as a resounding success, while attributing persistent and systemic issues to small glitches in the system," Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, said in a prepared statement.

"While CMS claims to have fixed the major problems, and purports to be solving individual beneficiary problems in a timely and satisfactory manner, our experience shows otherwise. Our new report highlights some of the most glaring issues and suggests solutions," Stein said.

The report outlines difficulties and problems experienced by people who've signed up for the drug plan.

"The design of Part D promotes enormous variation in the type of plans offered, enrollment experiences, covered drugs, what counts toward the Donut Hole coverage gap, plan costs, and appeals. Many people remain confused and frustrated by Part D's complexity and limitations," the report says.


FDA Approves Two-In-One Hepatitis B Test

Federal health officials have approved a two-in-one test for hepatitis B that should streamline the screening of donated blood and organs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the test for the hepatitis B virus in people who donate blood, blood components and organs. The test, made by Abbott Laboratories Inc., can also be used to screen blood from cadavers used to supply organs and tissue, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.

Hepatitis B is caused by a virus that infects the liver and can cause scarring, cancer and failure of the liver, as well as death. The new test, which is fully automated, combines both screening and confirmatory tests, which are now done separately, the AP reported.

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