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Health Highlights: June 16, 2006

Blacks Hear Better Than Whites: Study Volunteers Begin Testing Bird Flu Nasal Vaccine First Drug Regimen Approved for Advanced Cervical Cancer Docs Question Merits of Cosmetic Lasers: Newspaper Baseball Wants to Strike Out Prostate Cancer

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

Blacks Hear Better Than Whites: Study

Blacks hear better than whites, woman hear better than men, and despite all the ear-blasting devices of modern electronics, hearing levels in the United States are about the same as they were 35 years ago, a government study has found.

The racial and sex differences confirmed earlier studies that had reached the same conclusion, but the new study by scientists with the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was the largest national sample yet to report such a finding, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

Some scientists believe that higher melanin levels in blacks may play a role in how the body removes harmful chemical compounds caused by damage to the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear. In this way, higher melanin may protect blacks from noise-induced hearing loss as years go by.

Elliott Berger, an Indianapolis-based hearing protection expert, said that genetics or differences in noise exposure may explain the difference between women and men. "Boys have typically done noisier activities," Berger told AP.

The study looked at more than 5,000 people who underwent hearing tests from 1999 through 2004 as part of a comprehensive, annual federal health survey that included physical examinations. The 10- to 20-minute test involved wearing headphones and pressing a button when a tone was heard. Frequency and decibel levels were also measured.

Women were more sensitive to higher frequency tones in the test. They could hear higher tones at 11 to 22 decibels, compared with 19 to 32 decibels for men, AP reported. The results closely followed those collected from hearing tests conducted from 1971 to 1975.

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Volunteers Begin Testing Bird Flu Nasal Vaccine

A U.S. team on Thursday began tests in human volunteers on an experimental H5N1 avian flu vaccine. The shot contains live but weakened viruses and is administered through the nose via an inhaler or spray.

Experts hope the new vaccine will afford greater protection than injectable vaccines and do so in smaller doses, although some scientists aren't sure it will induce enough of a protective response in humans to be worthwhile. The vaccine was developed by a team at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Canadian Press reported Friday.

The trial is being conducted by The Center for Immunization Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md., in collaboration with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and MedImmune Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based company that makes one of only two live-attenuated influenza vaccines in the world. The other is made by a Russian manufacturer, CP said.

The live-virus vaccine being tested is administered through the nose and replicates the way that regular viruses do. This low-level infection activates the immune system to develop antibodies that could protect against later exposure to a full-strength virus, the researchers explained.

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First Drug Regimen Approved for Advanced Cervical Cancer

The first combination of drugs to treat late-stage cervical cancer received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval Thursday.

Hycamtin (topotecan hydrochloride) -- already approved to treat cancers of the ovaries and lung -- is newly sanctioned in combination with cisplatin to treat cervical cancer that's too advanced or is unlikely to respond to treatments including surgery and radiation, the agency said.

Some 10,000 U.S. women are diagnosed annually with cervical cancer, leading to 3,700 deaths each year. In clinical trials involving 293 women, participants who used the combination survived an average of 9.4 months, versus 6.5 months among those who took cisplatin alone, the FDA said

Hycamtin, made by GlaxoSmithKline, was approved in 1996 for ovarian cancer and in 1998 for small-cell lung cancer. People who take it are at risk for neutropenia, a drop in white blood cell count that boosts a person's risk of infections. Users are also at risk for a decrease in blood platelets, which could lead to excessive bleeding and anemia, the FDA said.

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Docs Question Merits of Cosmetic Lasers: Newspaper

A growing number of doctors who have used lasers and other technologies to counter drooping skin are questioning whether the devices actually work as touted, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Body sculpting treatments and related procedures are among the fastest-growing cosmetic procedures, the newspaper said, as the global pricetag in 2005 topped $4.2 billion. But actual results are marginal at best, physicians tell the Journal.

Some dermatologists and plastic surgeons are becoming increasingly critical of what they say are their colleagues' tendencies to show dramatic before-and-after pictures that overstate typical results. Makers of the devices attribute the complaints to the fact that patient results aren't always as dramatic as surgery, the newspaper reported.

There is little documented scientific evidence of the effectiveness of cosmetic lasers and other treatments, the Journal noted. One reason may be that the requirements for approval of these devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are much less stringent than evidence required for the FDA's approval of drugs, the newspaper said.

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Baseball Wants to Strike Out Prostate Cancer

To raise awareness of the dangers of prostate cancer, Major League Baseball says it will observe Father's Day this Sunday by working with corporate sponsors to donate money to prostate cancer research for every home run hit that day.

In an article on its Web site, Major League Baseball said an informative card would be distributed to fans at all MLB ballparks on Sunday, and that players and coaches would don symbolic wristbands and blue-ribbon uniform decals.

And The New York Times reported that traditional seventh-inning stretch activities would instead be done on Sunday during the sixth inning, symbolizing that one in every six American men will develop prostate cancer during his lifetime.

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