Health Highlights: March 13, 2009

USDA Approves Conditional License for E. Coli Cattle Vaccine Report Questions Value of U.S. Health Spending Former NYC Health Chief Likely to Be Named as FDA Leader Doctor May Have Faked Data in Many Studies

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

USDA Approves Conditional License for E. Coli Cattle Vaccine

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted a conditional license to a Minnesota company to market an E. coli vaccine for cattle to prevent a common source of beef contamination that has led to several large meat recalls in recent years, the Associated Press reports.

James Sandstrom, general manager of Willmar-based Epitopix, told the wire service the vaccine takes proteins that the bacteria use to absorb iron from the host animal and then injects them back into cows to generate an immune response against those proteins, without which the bacteria can't grow. The target is a strain of E. coli bacteria called O157 that sickens some 70,000 people in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infection from contaminated beef can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration, and in severe cases, kidney failure. Children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of serious infection.

How the beef industry will respond to the vaccine remains to be seen, however. "That's the $64 million question," Sandstrom told the AP, which said many beef producers already face slim profit margins and may need incentives to use the shot. But Michelle Rossman, director of beef safety research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the AP that support will come, since the industry has already spent millions of dollars to fight E. coli and is eager for strategies that work before slaughter.

The conditional license, the AP said, allows Epitopix to market the vaccine immediately, but it must continue potency and efficacy studies to get full licensure. Sandstrom told the wire service that the vaccine will enter commercial use this month, but it will be several months before it's widely available.

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Report Questions Value of U.S. Health Spending

U.S. health spending is too high and delivers too little benefit, according to a report released Thursday by a group called the Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of major companies.

The United States spent $2.4 trillion on health care, or $1,928 per person in 2006. That's at least 2.5 times more per person than any other developed country, yet the health of Americans lags behind those nations, said the Associated Press.

The report factored health measures and costs into a 100-point "value" scale and found that the United States is 23 points behind five leading economic competitors: Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. All those nations have public health coverage for their citizens.

The U.S. lags even further behind (46 points) when compared with emerging economic competitors China, Brazil and India, according to the report.

"Spending more would not be a problem if our health scores were proportionately higher," Dr. Arnold Milstein, one of the authors of the study, told the AP. "But what this study shows is that the U.S. is not getting higher levels of health and quality of care."

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Former NYC Health Chief Likely to Be Named as FDA Leader

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, is likely to be nominated this week as President Barack Obama's choice to lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The New York Times reports.

Hamburg, 53, would succeed Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, who led the agency from 2005 until last January. The Obama administration was also expected to name Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, as Hamburg's chief deputy. Sharfstein led Obama's transition team for the FDA, the Times said.

Hamburg was appointed by former Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting city health commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year. When former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office in 1994, she was asked to stay on the job. Under Hamburg's lead, a tuberculosis control program produced sharp declines in the incidence of the disease in New York, and child immunizations also rose, the paper reported.

Hamburg's selection was first reported Wednesday on the The Wall Street Journal's Web site, the Times said. "Peggy has a deep commitment to the public health and, while she appreciates the vital role of industry, will surely focus on what is best for the public," Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, the medical arm of the National Academy of Sciences, told the Times.

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Doctor May Have Faked Data in Many Studies

A highly influential Massachusetts anesthesiologist may have fabricated results in at least 21 published studies, according to officials at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

Dr. Scott S. Reuben has published dozens of studies on the use of more than one type of drug to relieve post-surgical pain and speed recovery. This method, multimodal analgesia, is an important and emerging field of anesthesiology, the Boston Globe reported.

Last year, hospital officials launched an investigation of Reuben's work and identified 21 published papers over 13 years in which all or some of the data were fabricated. In many cases, "there was no clinical trial, because there were no patients," said Dr. Hal Jenson, Baystate's chief academic officer.

Several medical journals were notified about the investigation results, and they are in the process of retracting Reuben's papers, Jenson told the Globe.

If proven true, this may be among the largest and longest-running medical fraud cases, according to experts.

"This would be the largest research fraud in anesthesia," said Dr. Steven Shafer, editor of the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia.

"Doctors have been using [his] findings very widely. His findings had a huge impact on the field. The act of fabricating data is so difficult for me to comprehend. It's beyond my ability to imagine," Shafer told the Globe.

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