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Health Highlights: May 2, 2006

U.S. to Unveil Pandemic Response Plan Court Reinstates Lawsuit Over Access to Experimental Drugs Gastric-Band Surgery Better Than Low-Calorie Diet: Study Increased Suicide Risk for Those Born in Spring: Study Studies Test Diabetes Drug's Effect on Alzheimer's Company Pulls Antibiotic Tequin Off the Market

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

U.S. to Unveil Pandemic Response Plan

If a flu pandemic reaches the United States, workers should be kept at least 3 feet apart, colleges would need to designate dormitories to quarantine the sick, and coughing airline and ship travelers should be made to wear surgical masks, according to a federal government draft pandemic flu plan.

The undated draft was obtained by the Associated Press. The White House is scheduled to release a pandemic response plan on Wednesday.

As many as 40 percent of American workers could be off the job if a pandemic strikes and all segments of U.S. society must be prepared for the effects of a pandemic, according to the report.

"The collective response of 300 million Americans will significantly influence the shape of the pandemic and its medical, social and economic outcomes," says the 228-page draft version of the plan. "Institutions in danger of becoming overwhelmed will rely on the voluntarism and sense of civic and humanitarian duty of ordinary Americans."

The government predicts massive disruptions in the event of a pandemic and a worst-case scenario of up to two million deaths in the United States, the AP reported.

Restrictions on movement in and around the country, a limit on the number of international flights, and quarantining exposed travelers are among the possible responses to a pandemic.

Fears of a worldwide flu pandemic are focused on the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has infected about 200 people since 2003, killing about half of them. Experts are concerned that the H5N1 virus may mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans.


Court Reinstates Lawsuit Over Access to Experimental Drugs

A U.S. federal appeals court on Tuesday handed a legal reprieve to terminally ill patients seeking access to experimental drugs that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered reinstatement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the patients. The court returned the case to district court, which had dismissed it in 2004, the Associated Press reported.

The lawsuit against the FDA was filed by the Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs and the Washington Legal Foundation. The groups want terminally ill patients to have access to experimental drugs that have undergone preliminary safety testing in as few as 20 people but haven't been approved by the FDA.

"Barring a terminally ill patient from the use of a potentially lifesaving treatment impinges on the right of self-preservation," Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote in the court's 2-1 decision.

Patient access to experimental drugs shouldn't be decided solely by the FDA, said Frank Burroughs, president of the Abigail Alliance. He founded the group after the cancer death of his daughter Abigail in 2001.


Gastric-Band Surgery Better Than Low-Calorie Diet: Study

Minimally invasive adjustable gastric band surgery helps overweight people shed pounds better over the long term than a very low-calorie diet, says an Australian study published Tuesday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study included 80 people who were, on average, 52 pounds over a healthy weight. Half of them had the gastric band surgery and half were put on a program that included a very low-calorie diet (500 calories a day) with liquid meal replacements, behavioral therapies, and prescription weight-loss medications, USA Today reported.

Gastric banding places a band around the top of the stomach to create a feeling of fullness.

After six months, both groups of patients had lost an average of 14 percent of their weight. After two years, however, the gastric-band patients had lost 22 percent of their starting weight, compared to 5.5 percent for the dieters, who had regained much of their lost weight.

The researchers noted that the surgery does carry some risks, and some people may require follow-up procedures, such as adjusting the band position.


Increased Suicide Risk for Those Born in Spring: Study

People born in the spring or early summer may be at increased risk for suicide, according to a U.K. study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers analyzed 26,916 suicides in England and Wales and concluded that people born in April, May or June had a 17 percent greater risk of suicide than people born in the autumn, BBC News reported.

This increased risk of suicide may reflect the fact that people born in spring and summer are more likely to suffer alcoholism, depression and mood disorders, the researchers suggested. Ten percent of suicides in England and Wales occur among people with these disorders.

"Our results support the hypotheses that there is a seasonal effect in the monthly birth rates of people who kill themselves and that there is a disproportionate excess of such people born between late spring and midsummer compared with the other months," the study authors wrote.


Studies Test Diabetes Drug's Effect on Alzheimer's

The new theory that there may be a link between Alzheimer's disease and diabetes will be tested in research to determine whether giving Alzheimer's patients the diabetes drug Avandia will slow cognitive decline.

The three Phase III studies of thousands of patients, which begin this summer, follow a preliminary study of 511 Alzheimer's patients that suggested the drug may help those patients who lack a gene that spurs more aggressive Alzheimer's, the Associated Press reported.

Diabetes, which damages blood vessels that supply the brain, has long been listed as a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. However, this new theory suggests a more direct link -- that Alzheimer's can be triggered when brain cells aren't able to properly use their main fuel -- sugar. This is similar to Type II diabetes, which occurs when insulin loses its ability to process sugar in the entire body.

Avandia (rosiglitazone) treats Type II diabetes by resensitizing the body to insulin. The Phase III studies will be conducted by Avandia maker GlaxoSmithKline.

"I don't think this is hype for rosiglitazone," Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University, and an Alzheimer's Association spokesman, told the AP. "This does dovetail with some existing knowledge."


Company Pulls Antibiotic Tequin Off the Market

The antibiotic Tequin, which has been linked to serious blood sugar complications, is being taken off the market, drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb said Monday.

The company will stop making and selling the drug and return its rights to Kyorin Pharmaceutical Company in Japan, the Associated Press reported.

Stocks of the drug currently available will not be recalled, said Bristol-Myers Squibb spokesman Eric Miller. People taking Tequin should not stop using it until they've discussed alternatives with their doctor, he said.

The drug was approved for sale in the U.S. in 1999. In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered Bristol-Myers Squibb to place stronger warnings on the drug's labeling, the AP reported.

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