Health Highlights: March 11, 2006

Platelet Donation Restrictions Shelved By Panel Polio Drugs Should Be Developed, Council Says Teens Think 'Alcopops' Are 'Fun and Cool' Physicians' Letter Condemns U.S. Force-Feeding of Prisoners Measles Death Toll Cut by 48 Percent Study Looks at Stem Cell Treatment for Childhood Brain Disease

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

Platelet Donation Restrictions Shelved By Panel

Personal donations of platelets shouldn't be limited, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has ruled, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The federal proposal, which first surfaced as part of a tightening of donation guidelines, suggested limiting each person to 24 pints a year. Platelets -- the component in blood that makes clotting possible -- are scarce in the United States because they only last five days after they are collected, the AP said. For some, including certain cancer patients, regular transfusions are necessary because they can't make their own platelets.

The current guidelines limit platelet donors to 24 times a year, which would average roughly 72 pints, the wire service reported. The new proposal set off a firestorm among donation centers, which argued that healthy donors can quickly replace lost platelets, the wire service said. The FDA advisory panel apparently agreed. The full agency doesn't have to follow a panel's recommendations, but usually does.

The panel did recommend that if people donate two to three pints at one time, they shouldn't donate again for at least a week, the AP reported. During donation, platelets are removed through a process called apheresis, where the blood is drawn through one arm, put into a centrifuge to remove the platelets, and the remaining blood is returned to the donor through the other arm.

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Polio Drugs Should Be Developed, Council Says

Drugs to combat polio should be developed to protect against any outbreaks that might occur once worldwide vaccination programs have ended, a committee of the National Research Council suggested.

The Associated Press reported Friday that the committee was concerned that, despite the fact that the number of polio cases worldwide has plummeted from 355,000 in 1988 to 784 in 2003, if the disease is indeed eliminated in the next few years people will stop getting vaccinated. The World Health Organization plans to keep using the current vaccine for three years after the disease is eradicated. The current oral vaccine uses a weakened polio virus, although the injected vaccine used more often in the United States uses a dead virus, the wire service said.

"The development of one or more antiviral drugs against poliovirus, although expensive, serves as an insurance policy that provides an additional means of reacting to repeated outbreaks due to continued circulation of vaccine-derived strains, should they occur," the committee concluded.

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Teens Think 'Alcopops' Are 'Fun and Cool'

Many California teens think that drinking fizzy and fruity alcoholic beverages called "alcopops" is fun and cool and that they won't get drunk, according to comments collected from more than 300 young people from around the state.

The teens are bombarded with ads that glamorize alcopops, which include products such as Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade. Here are some of the comments the teens made about alcopops:

  • "It's a drink you can control without passing out. You feel comfortable drinking them."
  • "Most alcopops are very popular because it doesn't have any effect and it's like a soft drink."
  • "The more you see it, the more obligated you feel to taste it. If it tastes good, you will want more."
  • "People in the ads are always cool and sober, they aren't drunk or acting stupid."

The findings were released Friday by the Center for Applied Research Solutions, in conjunction with a public hearing by the California Senate Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, which heard submissions about the negative effects that underage drinking has on communities.

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Physicians' Letter Condemns U.S. Force-Feeding of Prisoners

A letter condemning the United States for force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been signed by more than 250 medical experts from seven nations. The letter appears in the new issue of The Lancet medical journal.

The letter says doctors at the prison must respect hunger-striking inmates' rights to refuse treatment and that physicians who use restraints and force-feeding on prisoners should be punished by their professional organizations, BBC News reported.

"We urge the U.S. government to ensure that detainees are assessed by independent physicians and that techniques such as force-feeding and restraint chairs are abandoned," said the letter, signed by doctors from Australia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The letter urged the American Medical Association to take disciplinary action against any of its members known to have violated the World Medical Association's prohibition against force-feeding, BBC News reported.

Inmates at the prison have said prisoners on hunger strike were restrained in chairs and force-fed through tubes inserted in their noses.

The United Nations and human-rights groups have urged the United States to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, where about 500 terror suspects are being held without trial.

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Measles Death Toll Cut by 48 Percent

The number of people killed by measles around the world has declined by 48 percent since the late 1990s, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The global measles death toll went from 871,000 in 1999 to 454,00 in 2004. The largest reduction was in sub-Sahara Africa, where measles cases and deaths declined by 60 percent, BBC News reported.

The two organizations, which pledged in 2001 to cut measles deaths in half by 2005, say that vaccination programs are the reason for the success.

Under an umbrella organization called the Measles Initiative, a number of groups targeted their prevention efforts in 47 countries that account for 98 percent of measles deaths. Between 1999 and 2005, nearly 500 million children received measles vaccinations, BBC News reported.

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Study Looks at Stem Cell Treatment for Childhood Brain Disease

The first U.S. clinical trial using fetal neural stem cells to treat infants and children with a rare and fatal brain condition called Batten disease is set to begin at Oregon Health & Science University.

Batten disease is a genetic disorder that causes blindness, loss of speech, and paralysis before patients die.

The stem cells, taken from fetal tissues, not developing embryos, will be injected into the children's brains to determine if the treatment is safe.

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