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Health Highlights: May 11, 2008

Lawsuit Alleging Mercury Causes Autism to Begin in U.S. Court of Claims 85 Hepatitis C Cases Confirmed at Las Vegas ClinicsFlu Vaccine Makers Preparing 143 Million Doses for Next Season Marijuana Linked to Teen Mental Health Problems New Formulation of Coagulation Factor Approved by FDA FDA Approves Generic Versions of Restless Legs Drug

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

Lawsuit Alleging Mercury Causes Autism to Begin in U.S. Court of Claims

A preservative containing mercury and once widely used in childhood vaccines becomes the topic of a U.S. lawsuit this coming week as two Oregon families seek to prove that the substance caused two 10-year-old boys to develop autism.

The Associated Press reports that the boys' families are the first of 4,900 families to charge in court that the preservative thimerosal does indeed trigger autism in some children. The case is being heard in the U.S. Court of Claims

A number of studies in recent years have found there was no evidence that thimerosal had any link to the onset of autism after a child had received one or more of the standard childhood vaccinations, the wire service said. In 2004 a committee from the Institute of Medicine concluded that thimerosal did not cause autism when used as a vaccine preservative, the A.P. reports.

Today, however, only the influenza vaccine contains thimerosal. The attorneys for the boys, William Mead and Jordan King, must prove that autism was caused by the vaccines, which at the time the children were injected contained thimerosal, the wire service reports.

According to interviews and examination of the court documents, the A.P. reports that the plaintiffs will attempt to present evidence that injections with thimerosal deposit a mercury variant in the brain. This, in turn, excites certain brain cells, which leads to autism.

"In some kids, there's enough of it that it sets off this chronic neuroinflammatory pattern that can lead to regressive autism," attorney Mike Williams told the A.P.


85 Hepatitis C Cases Confirmed at Las Vegas Clinics

Health officials have identified at least 85 people treated at two Las Vegas area outpatient clinics over a four year period as having contracted Hepatitis C, the Associated Press reports.

The two clinics in question, the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and the Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, treated about 50,000 patients over this amount of time, the A.P. said, and while no official reason for the 85 people getting hepatitis C has been given, the cause may have been because the clinic staff reused syringes and vials of medication while administering anesthesia.

The doctors who ran the clinics, Dipak Desai and Eladio Carrera, have had their medical licenses suspended until Nevada's state Board of Medical Examiners hold hearings, the wire service reported.

Brian Labus, a senior epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District, told the A.P. that the link between being treated at the clnics and contracting Hepatitis C was strong. "We know they [the 85 patients] didn't have a positive test before they went to the clinic, and now they're positive," he said.

State officials are worried that all 50,000 patients who were treated at the clinics between March, 2004 and Jan. 11, 2008 may have been exposed to Hepatitis C, which can linger in a person's system for years without symptoms. The disease can result in liver failure.


Flu Vaccine Makers Preparing 143 Million Doses for Next Season

Hoping they picked the right viruses this time, the five companies that make influenza vaccine plan to offer at least 143 million doses to Americans for the 2008-2009 flu season, the Associated Press reports.

The 2007-2008 flu season, which is just ending, was the worst in four years for adult deaths, the wire service reports, largely because the viruses used in the flu vaccine were ineffective against many of the viruses that actually circulated in the population.

The viruses included in the vaccine each season are determined by scientists who have had a good record of predicting accurately, the A.P. reports, but two of the three viruses this season were wrong and were only 44 percent effective against the flu that circulated in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC and the American Medical Association are hosting a flu vaccine "summit" meeting in Atlanta next week, the wire service reports. Each year in the United States more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from the flu, and an average of 36,000 deaths occur, according the U.S. government statistics.


Marijuana Linked to Teen Mental Health Problems

Teens who've reported being depressed at some point in the past year are more than twice as likely (25 percent) to have used marijuana than those who weren't depressed (12 percent), according to a White House Office of National Drug Control Policy report to be released Friday.

The paper also said that marijuana use by teens increases their risk of developing a mental disorder by 40 percent and that teens who use marijuana at least once a month for a year are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who don't use the drug, the Associated Press reported.

In addition, teens who smoke marijuana when feeling depressed are more than twice as likely as other teens -- eight percent compared with three percent -- to abuse or become addicted to marijuana, the report said.

The report authors analyzed data from about a dozen previous studies that examined marijuana use.

"Marijuana is a more consequential substance of abuse than our culture has treated it in the last 20 years. This is not just youthful experimentation that they'll get over as we used to think in the past," John Walters, director of the drug control policy office, told the AP.

Since 2001, marijuana use among American teens has decreased 25 percent. Currently, about 2.3 million children use marijuana at least once a month, according to the drug control office.


New Formulation of Coagulation Factor Approved by FDA

A new formulation (NovoSeven RT) of the genetically engineered version of Factor VIIA -- a plasma protein essential for the clotting of blood -- has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. With the new formulation, the product can be stored at room temperature (up to 81 degrees F) for up to two years.

NovoSeven RT shares the same uses as the earlier NovoSeven including: treatment of bleeding and the prevention of surgical bleeding in patients with hemophilia A or B who have antibodies that neutralize the action of clotting Factors VIII or IX; treatment of bleeding and the prevention of surgical bleeding in patients with congenital Factor VII deficiency; and prevention of surgical bleeding in patients with acquired hemophilia, the FDA said.

Approval of NovoSeven RT will benefit health-care facilities with limited refrigeration space. The original formula could be stored for three years at temperatures between 36 and 46 degrees F, the FDA said.

Fever, bleeding, injection site reaction, joint discomfort, headache, increases or decreases in blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, pain, swelling and rash are among the most common side effects associated with NovoSeven RT.


FDA Approves Generic Versions of Restless Legs Drug

The first generic versions of the restless leg syndrome drug Requip have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency said it approved generic ropinirole hydrochloride tablets in the following dosages: 0.25 milligram, 0.5 milligram, 1 milligram, 2 milligrams, 3 milligrams, and 4 milligrams. The companies approved to market the generic tablets are: Roxane Laboratories Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Par Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Mylan Pharmaceuticals Inc.

While Requip is also approved to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease, the generic versions are currently not approved for that kind of use, which is protected by patent. However, that patent expires later this month and the makers of the generic drugs may then seek approval for the Parkinson's disease indication, the FDA said.

The generic tablets will carry the same safety warnings as Requip about the possible risk of falling asleep while doing daily activities, including driving.


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