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Health Highlights: June 30, 2006

Bird Flu Victims Are Mainly Young, WHO Reports New Treatment Approved to Prevent Elderly Blindness FDA Sanctions Generic Zoloft Children Should Get 2nd Dose of Chickenpox Vaccine: CDC Panel Prostate Cancer Vaccine Boosts Survival: Study Anemia Drug Approved for Blood Cancer

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

Bird Flu Victims Are Mainly Young, WHO Reports

The average age of bird flu victims is 20, making the current outbreak similar in that respect to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the World Health Organization said Friday.

The current death rate among people with bird flu ages 10 to 19 is 73 percent -- highest of any age group, according to the WHO report cited by the Bloomberg news service. By contrast, most victims of seasonal flu are older than age 65.

Overall, the lethal HN51 strain of bird flu has killed more than half of its victims, according to the WHO report published in the Weekly Epidemiological Record. Since 2003, 228 cases of human bird flu have been reported, including 130 deaths, Bloomberg said.

A bird flu pandemic mimicking the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak could kill as many as 70 million people worldwide at a global cost of more than $2 trillion, according to an unidentified World Bank official cited by Bloomberg.

While the HN51 strain hasn't been detected in the United States, officials say they're taking no chances, according to the Associated Press. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., announced Friday that it was removing all chickens and ducks from its children's petting farm as a precaution. None of the birds is believed infected, a zoo spokesman said.

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New Treatment Approved to Prevent Elderly Blindness

A new drug that's been shown to prevent a major form of blindness among the elderly was approved Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Genentech's Lucentis (ranibizumab), dosed monthly, was approved to treat wet age-related macular degeneration. Wet AMD, a retinal disease that causes irreversible vision loss, affects about 155,000 Americans annually, the FDA said in a statement.

The disease is caused when abnormal blood cells in the retina leak, eventually damaging the portion of the eye responsible for central vision. In clinical testing of Lucentis, nearly 95 percent of users maintained vision after 12 months, compared with 60 percent of participants who did not take Lucentis.

Another Genentech medication, the cancer drug Avastin, is increasingly prescribed "off-label" to treat AMD, the Associated Press reported. While both inhibit the protein that's believed responsible for the disease, Avastin costs about $17 a dose, while Lucentis is likely to cost upwards of $2,000 a dose, the wire service said.

At least 10,000 people with macular degeneration have been legally prescribed Avastin off-label, meaning that the FDA hasn't sanctioned the drug for that purpose, the AP reported. Genentech has said it has no plans to test Avastin's safety and effectiveness for AMD, the wire service said.

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FDA Sanctions Generic Zoloft

The first generic versions of the popular antidepressant Zoloft (sertraline) were approved Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, Pfizer's Zoloft was the sixth-best selling drug in the United States with retail sales of more than $2.5 billion, the agency said in a statement. The company's patent expires Saturday.

Israeli generic drugmaker Teva Pharmaceuticals plans to launch its version of Zoloft in July, the Associated Press reported.

Generics, less expensive than brand-name equivalents, accounted for about two-thirds of U.S. prescription drug sales in 2004, the FDA said.

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Children Should Get 2nd Dose of Chickenpox Vaccine: CDC Panel

Children 4 to 6 years old should be given the varicella zoster (chickenpox) vaccine, in addition to the initial dose they received at age 12 to 18 months, an expert panel advising the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended.

Up to 20 percent of children who receive a single dose of the vaccine aren't fully protected against chickenpox, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said in recommending the second dose to the full CDC. In a statement, the panel also said a single dose administered at 18 months or younger might not continue to offer protection into adulthood.

Before the varicella vaccine was licensed in 1995, about 4 million U.S. cases of chickenpox were reported each year, leading to 13,500 hospitalizations and 150 deaths. Those numbers have since declined by up to 85 percent, the agency said.

Nonetheless, the CDC said it has been concerned about scattered outbreaks among vaccinated school children. Chickenpox cases in vaccinated children are usually mild, but the children can transmit the virus to others, including adults who are prone to more severe symptoms.

The full CDC typically follows the recommendations of its advisory panels.

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Prostate Cancer Vaccine Boosts Survival: Study

Men with advanced prostate cancer who were given an investigational cancer vaccine survived an average of 4 1/2 months longer than men who received a placebo, researchers found.

Dendreon Corp's sipuleucel-T vaccine delayed disease progression and prolonged survival in men with asymptomatic metastatic hormone refractory prostate cancer, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. Dendreon funded the study at 19 centers in the United States.

The vaccine, known by the brand name Provenge, is designed to stimulate immunity to prostatic acid phosphatase, an antigen found in some 95 percent of prostate cancers, the researchers said.

Median survival was 25.9 months longer among those given the vaccine, compared to 21.4 months for placebo-treated men, the researchers said. The study appears in the July issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

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Anemia Drug Approved for Blood Cancer

The anemia drug Revlimid (lenalidomide) has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a new use to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

The new approval allows maker Celgene Corp. to market Revlimid for use in combination with the steroid dexamethasone among multiple myeloma patients who have tried at least one prior therapy, the Associated Press reported.

In clinical trials, participants who took Revlimid and dexamethasone survived an average of 29.6 months, compared with 20.2 months for those who took a combination of dexamethasone and a placebo.

Multiple myeloma affects about 50,000 people in the United States, and more than 14,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, the AP said.

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