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Health Highlights: May 29, 2008

Appeals Courts Reverse Vioxx Awards EPA Tightens Rules on Rodent-Control Products U.S. Army Suicides Increased in 2007 San Francisco Fittest Large City Bicarbonate Changes May Warn of Early Cancer Hormone's Activity Influences Men's Heart Risk, Life Expectancy 60% of U.S. Adults Have at Least One Chronic Condition

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

Appeals Courts Reverse Vioxx Awards

One Vioxx-related verdict against drug maker Merck & Co. was reversed Thursday by an appeals court in Texas, while a Vioxx-related reward was reduced by a New Jersey appeals court.

In Texas, an appeals court scrapped a $26 million verdict awarded to the widow of Robert Ernst, who started taking the painkiller Vioxx eight months before he died in May 2001. The appeals court said there's no evidence that Ernst suffered a fatal heart problems from a blood clot caused by Vioxx, the Associated Press reported.

In New Jersey, an appeals court annulled $9 million of the $13.9 million awarded to John McDarby, who survived a heart attack in 2004. The appeals court said the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act pre-empted New Jersey's Product Liability Act.

The New Jersey appeals court also upheld a verdict in favor of Merck in the case of Thomas Cona, who survived a June 2003 heart attack. That case was heard simultaneously with McDarby's case.

In September 2004, Merck pulled Vioxx off the market after its own study showed the drug doubled the risk of heart attack or stroke. Merck faced thousand of lawsuits in connection with the drug. With these latest rulings, Merck has 11 victories and three losses from trials that reached verdicts, and the damages are now reduced in one of those losses, the AP reported.

In November, Merck reached a settlement in which it agreed to pay $4.85 billion to end thousands of other Vioxx lawsuits.


EPA Tightens Rules on Rodent-Control Products

New safety measures to protect children from accidental exposure to rodent-control products and to reduce accidental poisonings of pets and wildlife were announced Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The measures require that 10 rodenticides used in bait products marketed to consumers be enclosed in bait stations to make the pesticide inaccessible to children and pets. The EPA is also banning the sale of loose bait, such as pellets, for use in homes.

Rodenticide products that contain brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difethialone and difenacoum pose the greatest risk to wildlife and will no longer be allowed to be sold or distributed in the consumer market, the EPA said.

Bait stations will be required for all outdoor, above-ground uses for products containing these ingredients. These steps will significantly reduce the amount of product in the environment and provide additional protection for wildlife from poisonings, the EPA said.

The agency told companies that make these products to respond within 90 days regarding their intention to comply with the new requirements.


U.S. Army Suicides Increased in 2007

The number of U.S. Army suicides increased to 108 in 2007, six more than the previous year, two defense officials revealed Thursday in advance of a full report to be released later in the day. About one-quarter of the suicides occurred in Iraq.

The 108 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops that had been activated was lower than the preliminary figure released in January that suggested as many as 121 troops may have committed suicide in 2007, the Associated Press reported.

During the five years of war in Iraq and nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan, there's been an increase in troop suicides -- 67 in 2004, 85 in 2005, 102 in 2006 and 108 in 2007.

The increases are occurring despite a number of initiatives to improve the mental health of troops, including more suicide prevention training and education programs, the hiring of hundreds of additional mental health professionals, and increased mental health screening of troops, the AP reported.


San Francisco Fittest Large City

San Francisco is the fittest of the United States' most populous cities, according to a study that looked at 16 large metropolitan areas, according to the American College of Sport Medicine.

The report analyzed several health and fitness-related factors and found that San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area scored above average on a number of indicators:

  • Nearly 32 percent of its citizens eat five or more fruits and vegetables per day.
  • They're more likely to have health insurance and less likely to have chronic health problems.
  • The area scored well on amenities such as parks and athletic facilities and had an above-average number of commuters who bike, walk or use public transportation.
  • The number of health care providers in the area is among the highest for the largest metropolitan areas.

Rounding out the top five were Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. The bottom five were Detroit (lowest), Riverside, Calif., Los Angeles, Houston, and Indianapolis.


Bicarbonate Changes May Warn of Early Cancer

Using MRI scans to check for changes in naturally-produced bicarbonate may help identify cancers in the very early stages, says a Cancer Research UK study.

Bicarbonate plays a role in the body's balancing of acid and alkali. It's known that cancer turns bicarbonate into carbon dioxide, BBC News reported. Almost all cancer has a lower pH, which means it's more acidic than surrounding tissue. Currently, there is no way to safely measure pH in patients.

In test on mice, the researchers boosted MRI sensitivity more than 20,000 times and found they were able to monitor changes in bicarbonate and identify early-stage cancer. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

"This technique could be used as a highly-sensitive early warning system for signs of cancer," lead researcher Professor Kevin Brindle said in prepared statement. "By exploiting the body's natural pH balancing system, we have found a potentially safe way of measuring pH to see what's going on inside patients."

As well as detecting cancer, Brindle said this method could be used to determine if cancer patients are responding to treatment, BBC News reported.


Hormone's Activity Influences Men's Heart Risk, Life Expectancy

Higher levels of activity of the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-growth factor 1) may reduce men's heart risk and boost their life expectancy, according to a study by researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

IGF-1 is released by the liver and is similar in molecular structure to insulin. The researchers said the hormone plays an important role in childhood growth and continues to have an effect in adulthood, United Press International reported.

At the start of the study, serum samples were taken from 376 healthy men, ages 73 to 94. The men were followed for up to eight years.

Men with the lowest level of IGF-1 activity had a significantly higher death rate than those with the highest level of activity. The researchers said the results were especially significant in people at high risk of death from cardiovascular complications, UPI reported.

The study was published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.


60% of U.S. Adults Have at Least One Chronic Condition

In the United States, 60 percent of people aged 18 and older have at least one chronic medical condition, defined as one expected to last at least one year and result in limitations or the need for ongoing care.

The latest News and Numbers summary from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality looked at 2005 data, finding that:

  • Nearly 40 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 had at least one chronic condition, as did 90 percent of people aged 65 and older.
  • About 77 percent of those aged 65 and older had two or more chronic conditions, compared with 14 percent of those aged 18 to 34.
  • Treatment of chronic conditions accounted for nine of every 10 dollars spent for medical care on American adults, excluding costs for dental care, medical equipment, and supplies.
  • About 22 million adults received medical care for osteoarthritis and related conditions, 49 million for asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 17 million for diabetes, 45 million for high blood pressure, and 19 million for heart disease.
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