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Health Highlights: June 4, 2008

FDA Data Notes Possible Link Between Suicidal Behavior and Epilepsy Drugs: Report Cigarette Decline Outpaces Marijuana Drop Among Teens Merck Won't Have to Monitor Uninjured Vioxx Users: Court Asian-Pacific Islanders at Greater Risk of Hospital Complications Estrogen Cream Could Protect Men Against HIV Scientists Block Sexual Development of Malaria Parasite Simple Infection Control Steps Reduce Student Absenteeism

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

FDA Data Notes Possible Link Between Suicidal Behavior and Epilepsy Drugs: Report

A group of 11 popular epilepsy drugs may be linked to suicidal behavior among users, according to an unpublished analysis from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cited by a Wall Street Journal reporter in the newspaper's online "Health Blog."

Clinical data that may spur the FDA to add warnings to the medicines' labels were summarized last week to scientists meeting in Phoenix and New York City, reporter Alicia Mundy wrote in Wednesday's blog entry.

Attendees at the New York City meeting told Mundy that the FDA appeared ready to lump the drugs together as a "class," she wrote.

Mundy's entry mentioned the Pfizer drugs Lyrica and Neurontin (now generically called gabapentin), Johnson & Johnson's Topamax, Abbott Labs' Depakote, and UBC's Keppra.

The reporter cited an email from an unspecified FDA spokeswoman, who said the agency "is working on finding the most appropriate ways to convey to the public the risks of suicidality that were seen in trials."

Experts advising the FDA on the drugs are set to meet early next month, Mundy wrote.


Cigarette Decline Outpaces Marijuana Drop Among Teens

Cigarette use among high school students fell markedly in 2007 to 20 percent from 23 percent two years earlier, a new federal report shows. But marijuana use among these teens over the same span dropped only slightly, to 19.7 percent in 2007 from 20.2 percent in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report.

"Efforts to curb cigarette sales to teens have been wildly successful, and it's past time that we applied those lessons to marijuana," Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Washington, D.C., said in a prepared statement.

A second analysis released this week, the 2007 Annual Synar Report on tobacco sales to youth, showed a decline in illegal tobacco sales to underage kids for the 10th straight year, the MPP statement said. In 2007, 10.5 percent of retailers violated laws against tobacco sales to minors, compared to 40.1 percent in 1997, the report found.


Merck Won't Have to Monitor Uninjured Vioxx Users: Court

Merck & Co., maker of the now defunct painkiller Vioxx, won't have to monitor former users of the drug who aren't claiming injury, the New Jersey Supreme Court said Wednesday.

Ruling 5-1, the court dismissed a lawsuit brought by users of the painkiller, who said they didn't have current symptoms but were more prone to health problems for having used the drug, the Associated Press reported.

Late last year, Merck agreed to settle for $4.85 billion thousands of lawsuits alleging that users' cardiovascular problems were caused by Vioxx. The drug was withdrawn from the market in September 2004 after a company study found that Vioxx doubled users' risks of heart attack or stroke.

In its ruling on Wednesday, the New Jersey court said that since these users weren't claiming injury, they "cannot satisfy the definition of harm" in seeking to get Merck to pay for monitoring their conditions, the AP reported.


Asian-Pacific Islanders at Greater Risk of Hospital Complications

People of Asian-Pacific Island ancestry are 16 percent more likely than whites to die from deadly complications acquired in U.S. hospitals, a new federal report finds.

The 12.5 million Asian-Pacific Islanders in the United States include native Hawaiians, Samoans, and people who trace their ancestry to nations including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality study cited possible reasons for the disparity in preventable complications, including Asians being treated at hospitals that provided lower-quality care, receiving inferior care compared with people in the same hospital, cultural or language barriers that affected quality of care, and being more vulnerable to complications than people of other origins.

The study found that Asian-Pacific Islanders having surgery were:

  • 42 percent more likely to acquire a blood infection (sepsis).
  • 35 percent more likely to develop kidney failure.
  • 21 percent more likely to develop internal bleeding or a blood clot.
  • 14 percent more likely to need a breathing ventilator.

The report analyzed race and ethnicity data from 23 states.


Estrogen Cream Could Protect Men Against HIV

A once-a-week application of the female hormone estrogen to the penis may act as a "natural condom" that helps protect men against HIV infection, suggest Australian researchers.

They said an estrogen cream could quadruple the thin layer of the protein keratin on the skin, providing a natural defensive layer, Agence France-Presse reported.

"You create what you could call a natural condom. You create a biological membrane which (HIV) can't get through," Professor Roger Short, of the University of Melbourne, said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting System.

He said this method wouldn't protect against other types of sexually transmitted diseases and wouldn't prevent pregnancy, but could offer a safe and simple method of reducing HIV infection around the world, AFP reported.

Clinical trials are expected to be conducted in Africa. The research was outlined in the journal PLoS One.


Scientists Block Sexual Development of Malaria Parasite

U.K. scientists have found a way to block the sexual development of the malaria parasite, a finding that could lead to the development of a drug that greatly reduces the spread of the disease.

The researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine identified an enzyme critical to the parasite's sex cycle and developed a way of halting it. The finding was published in the journal PLoS Biology.

"It acts as an inhibitor that stops the parasite from developing sexually," team leader David Baker told Agence France-Presse. "If we could develop a drug for patients, it would enable us to block malaria transmission from individual to individual," via the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

Such a drug may even have a curative effect, Baker said.

Each year, half a billion people worldwide are made severely ill by malaria, and more than a million die of the disease, AFP reported.


Simple Infection Control Steps Reduce Student Absenteeism

Student absenteeism can be reduced through a few simple infection control measures such as daily disinfection of desktops and other often-touched surfaces, and having children use alcohol-based hand sanitizers before and after lunch, say Children's Hospital Boston researchers.

Their study of children in Avon, Ohio, found that these measures did not affect levels of respiratory illness in third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, but did reduce absenteeism for gastrointestinal problems by 9 percent, United Press International reported.

The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

"The best ways to avoid common infections are cleaning your hands and preventing exposure to the germs that cause these illnesses," study leader Dr. Thomas Sandora, pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said in a prepared statement. "Our research indicates that elementary schools should consider a few simple infection control practices to help keep students healthier."

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