Health Highlights: May 31, 2011

Hospitals Facing More Drug Shortages Europe's E. Coli Outbreak Claims 2 More Lives Experts Question Necessity of Flu Shot for Some This Season

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

Hospitals Facing More Drug Shortages

Medication shortages in the United States tripled over the past five years, reaching a high of 211 last year and delaying or altering treatment for illnesses such as cancer, infertility and heart attack, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

"It's just a matter of time now before we call for a drug that we need to save a patient's life and we find out there isn't any," Dr. Eric Lavonas of the American College of Emergency Physicians told the AP.

The problem is getting worse, experts said. In the first three months of this year, 89 shortages occurred, with injectable medications used in emergency rooms, cancer treatment and intensive care units most often in short supply, according to the University of Utah's Drug Information Service, which tracks drug availability for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Causes of the shortage include difficulty importing raw materials, increased demand, and recalls of contaminated products. Also, fewer pharmaceutical companies make the cheaper, older generic drugs, especially the injectable ones, leaving fewer drug makers available to fill any gaps, Valerie Jensen, who heads the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's shortage office, told the AP.

A shortage of a sedative used for executions has been widely publicized, but other drugs in short supply include: injectable nutrients needed by some premature babies and critically ill patients; thiotepa, used for bone marrow transplantation; norepinephrine injections for septic shock; the cystic fibrosis drug acetylcysteine; injections for certain types of cardiac arrest; and leuprolide hormone injections used to treat infertility, the news service said.


Europe's E. Coli Outbreak Claims 2 More Lives

An E. coli outbreak in Europe claimed two more lives in recent days, bringing to 16 the total number of deaths attributed to tainted vegetables in Germany, officials reported Tuesday.

In all, more than 1,150 people are reported infected. Germany's national disease center said 373 people had hemolytic uremic syndrome -- the most severe form of the infection that is typically associated with the bacteria E. coli. On Monday that figure was 329, the Associated Press reported.

Another 796 people have become ill with enterohaemorrhagic E. coli, also known as EHEC bacteria, said Susanne Glasmacher, a spokeswoman for the Robert Koch Institute. In other European countries, hundreds of people have gotten sick, but no deaths had been reported outside of Germany until Tuesday.

In Bora, Sweden, a woman in her 50s who had traveled to Germany reportedly died of the bacterial infection, and an 87-year-old woman in Paderborn, Germany, also died from the outbreak, the AP said.

Cucumbers from the Spanish regions of Almeria and Malaga, as well as some originating in the Netherlands or in Denmark, are considered possible sources of the outbreak. Consumers in Germany have been warned to avoid cucumbers, lettuce and raw tomatoes.

The same strain of E. coli was responsible for a 1994 outbreak in Montana, and a related strain caused the 1993 deaths of four children in the western United States after they ate Jack in the Box hamburgers. The European outbreak, which is mainly striking adults, is much larger and deadlier, the news service said.


Experts Question Necessity of Flu Shot for Some This Season

The influenza vaccine for the coming season is a duplicate of that issued to millions of Americans in the 2010-2011 season, so some experts are questioning the need for many young, healthy Americans to get a "repeat" shot, the Associated Press reported.

"For healthy people, it can't be said to be necessary," Dr. Robert Couch, a flu vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine, told the news agency.

Nevertheless, that isn't stopping national health experts from urging that all Americans get the flu shot. Their reasoning: Any vaccine's protective powers can wane over a few months, especially for elderly recipients.

Certainly, there will be no flu vaccine shortage this year: According to the AP, five makers are manufacturing a total of between 166 million and 173 million doses, 6 million more than has ever been produced.

Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone older than 6 months of age get an annual flu shot, with the exception of people with egg allergies or certain rare conditions.

Still, the fact that this season's vaccine is identical in makeup to last year's is giving some experts pause. Some studies suggest that the flu shot can provide protection for more than a year in adults, and perhaps up to three years in children. But other studies have suggested that immunity may drop more quickly and steeply than that.

"Nobody really, really knows," Dr. John Treanor, a flu vaccine researcher at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, told the AP. He and other experts support the CDC's stance.

"The bottom line is, with our current knowledge, we believe it is better to be re-vaccinated. And getting another shot is certainly not going to harm you," Dr. Arnold Monto, an influenza expert at the University of Michigan, told the AP.

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