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Health Highlights: June 10, 2006

Survey: Teen Smoking Rate No Longer DecliningGenetic 'Shield' Guards Against Damaging Effects of Radiation Therapy FDA Will Track Drugs to Fight Counterfeiting Safety Group Cites Sharp Drop in Firefighter Deaths Lawsuits Filed Over Lipitor Side Effects Polio Outbreak in Namibia Puzzles WHO

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

Survey: Teen Smoking Rate No Longer Declining

Discouraging news about teenage smoking came late in the week from the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The decline in smoking among teenagers, which began in the late 1990s, appears to be over.

The Associated Press reports that two surveys released Thursday and Friday indicate that about one in four teenagers is smoking, and that statistic hasn't changed since 2003.

"We were making good progress, and now it looks like we're not," the wire service quotes Dr. Corinne Husten, the CDC's acting director of the Office on Smoking and Health, as saying. The findings were based on the CDC's National Youth Risk Survey, which has been tracking 14,000 teenagers' lifestyles habits nationwide.

Between 1997 and 2003, the A.P. reported, the percentage of teenagers who said they smoked during the previous 30 days declined from 36 percent to 22 percent. But 23 percent of those surveyed in 2003 through 2005 said they had smoked a cigarette during the past 30 days.

"The fact that youth smoking rates are not declining anymore is a wake-up call," the wire service quotes Vince Willmore, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, as saying.

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Genetic 'Shield' Guards Against Damaging Effects of Radiation Therapy

British researchers say they have found a way to shield healthy bone marrow cells from dangerous radiation during cancer treatments, the BBC reports.

Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Gene Medicine, scientists from Manchester University's Paterson Institute for Cancer Research say they have developed a genetic technique that stimulates bone marrow stem cells to make more of the protein SOD2, which acts as a shield against radiation.

While radiation therapy is very effective in killing cancer cells, it still can't be targeted specifically enough to avoid killing healthy cells as well, the BBC reports.

In the lab study, The Paterson team used a benign virus to insert a copy of the SOD2 gene into bone marrow stem cells. This, in turn, increased production of the shielding protein.

This is the first step in a procedure the scientists say they hope to develop that will lead to a pre-treatment cancer patients can take before undergoing radiation therapy.

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FDA Will Track Drugs to Fight Counterfeiting

Federal regulators will begin requiring wholesalers to track who handles the pharmaceuticals they sell, to help combat a rise in counterfeit drugs entering the legitimate market.

The decision Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to take effect Dec. 2. In practice, the move could affect the distribution system for medicines, requiring distributors to provide factory-to-pharmacy documentation of the chain of custody of drug products -- its so-called "pedigree" -- throughout the distribution system.

The FDA believes that radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is the most promising way to track drugs as they move through the supply chain. However, the agency said that it will hold off requiring drug manufacturers and distributors to use the technology, until more businesses adopt the electronic track-and-trace tags, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The FDA urges U.S. consumers to purchase drugs only from state-licensed U.S. pharmacies and to be alert to changes in packaging, labeling, color, taste, pill shape or unanticipated side effects. Before buying drugs over the Internet, consumers should look for the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal on the Web site.

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Safety Group Cites Sharp Drop in Firefighter Deaths

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association said Friday that 87 on-duty firefighters died in the United States in 2005, the third lowest toll since the fire-safety group began tracking deaths almost 30 years ago. Sudden cardiac deaths remained the leading cause of fatalities.

For the third straight year, the group said, firefighters were more likely to die responding to or returning from alarms and not at the scene of a fire. Of 26 deaths occurring in transit for 2005, 13 were due to sudden cardiac death and 10 were due to vehicle collisions or rollovers.

Particularly distressing, the group noted, were 11 firefighter deaths that occurred during training activities. The safety organization is conducting a special analysis of 100 training fatalities that occurred between 1996 and 2005.

Factors contributing to the drop in fatalities included decreases in deaths associated with wildland fires and the number of firefighters struck and killed by vehicles, the group said in a statement. It has compiled fatality figures for firefighters since 1977.

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Lawsuits Filed Over Lipitor Side Effects

Two men filed suit in New York State Supreme Court this week against Pfizer Inc., claiming the company didn't issue loud-enough warnings about the potential side effects of its popular anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor.

"It ruined my life," said Michael Mazzariello, a 47-year-old attorney from New York City and one of the plaintiffs. Mazzariello said he couldn't walk without a cane, tend his garden or lift his 1-year-old child.

A second lawsuit was filed by Charles M. Wilson, a former insurance executive from Atlanta, who claimed similar side effects made him ill.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Mazzariello did manage to stand by himself at a news conference in Manhattan to say that the symptoms subsided once he stopped taking the drug, but that he still felt pain.

Pfizer has vowed to fight the lawsuits, calling them "baseless." A company spokesman said that all potential side effects of the drug are included on its labeling and that research has repeatedly shown that the drug is safe for a vast majority of users.

Lipitor, a type of statin used to lower cholesterol, is the top-selling medication in the world and brings in more than $12 billion a year for Pfizer.

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Polio Outbreak in Namibia Puzzles WHO

An polio outbreak that has killed 7 people and paralyzed 33 more in the southern African nation of Namibia has left World Health Organization officials puzzled over its unusual course.

Polio normally attacks infants and young children, not adults, and Namibia had been free of the disease for a decade, The New York Times reported Friday. Vaccine stocks were low only enough for routine vaccination of infants and people were turned away when supplies ran out.

When new vaccine shipments arrive, the outbreak should be brought under control with relative ease, Dr. David L. Heymann, the WHO director general's representative for polio eradication, told the newspaper.

Namibia, home to 2 million people on Africa's southwest coast, has been headlines all week because of the recent birth there of Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, the daughter of actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Acccording to the Times, the baby was born in a coastal resort -- about 150 miles from the capital, Windhoek, where the polio outbreak occurred.

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