Health Highlights: June 1, 2011

E. Coli in German Outbreak is Rare, Lethal Strain Clot Risk Spurs FDA Review of Birth Control Pills Hospitals Facing More Drug Shortages

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

E. Coli in German Outbreak is Rare, Lethal Strain

Fifteen Germans and a Swedish woman have died, and more than 1,500 others have been made ill by a deadly strain of E. coli that is usually rare, German authorities say.

According to The New York Times, nearly 500 infected Germans have come down with a typically rare condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can stop kidney function.

The newspaper says that intensive care units in German cities are struggling to deal with very ill patients, even as authorities try to trace the source of the bacteria.

While tests conducted in Germany had cited some E. coli on cucumbers imported from Spain, it is not the virulent strain wreaking havoc in Germany, the Times reported. "There is no proof at this point in this time that the Spanish cucumbers are the cause of this contamination in Germany," John Dalli, the European Union's health commissioner, told the newspaper.

Nevertheless, the news has prompted a number of European countries to block importation of Spanish cucumbers. In Spain, authorities in Andalusia said on Tuesday that all 13 production sites of cucumbers had been shut down while tests on water, soil and produce were carried out. Lab results from those tests are expected on Thursday, the Times said.


Clot Risk Spurs FDA Review of Birth Control Pills

U.S. regulators will assess the safety of Bayer birth control pills as a result of two new studies suggesting they pose a higher-than-expected risk of serious blood clots.

Expressing concerns about the hormone drospirenone -- found in Bayer's Yaz, Yasmin, Beyaz and Safyral products -- the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Tuesday it has commissioned an 800,000-person study to review the risks . Drospirenone is a type of progestin used in combination with another female hormone, estrogen.

Women taking the drospirenone-containing birth control pills had a two to three times greater risk of blood clots compared with women taking pills containing a different type of progestin, according to the studies published in BMJ, the FDA said. Because other studies have had conflicting results, the agency said it wants to conduct its own review. It expects to have the results this summer.

All birth control pills carry some clotting risk. Symptoms include leg or chest pain or sudden shortness of breath. Women with concerns should talk to their doctor, the FDA said.

In Europe last week, regulators announced they would update the contraceptives' prescribing information to include the new findings.

Bayer's analysis of the overall body of available scientific evidence continues to support its current assessment about the safety of its oral contraceptives, Bayer said in a statement, according to Boomberg News.


Hospitals Facing More Drug Shortages

Medication shortages in the United States tripled over the past five years, reaching a high of 211 last year and delaying or altering treatment for illnesses such as cancer, infertility and heart attack, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

"It's just a matter of time now before we call for a drug that we need to save a patient's life and we find out there isn't any," Dr. Eric Lavonas of the American College of Emergency Physicians told the AP.

The problem is getting worse, experts said. In the first three months of this year, 89 shortages occurred, with injectable medications used in emergency rooms, cancer treatment and intensive care units most often in short supply, according to the University of Utah's Drug Information Service, which tracks drug availability for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Causes of the shortage include difficulty importing raw materials, increased demand, and recalls of contaminated products. Also, fewer pharmaceutical companies make the cheaper, older generic drugs, especially the injectable ones, leaving fewer drug makers available to fill any gaps, Valerie Jensen, who heads the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's shortage office, told the AP.

A shortage of a sedative used for executions has been widely publicized, but other drugs in short supply include: injectable nutrients needed by some premature babies and critically ill patients; thiotepa, used for bone marrow transplantation; norepinephrine injections for septic shock; the cystic fibrosis drug acetylcysteine; injections for certain types of cardiac arrest; and leuprolide hormone injections used to treat infertility, the news service said.


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