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Health Highlights: May 4, 2006

Expert Calls H5N1 Bird-Flu Virus 'Worst' He's Seen Tamiflu Prevents Death in Mammals With Bird Flu CDC Awards $10 Million to Research Health-Care-Related Infections Doctors Upset Over Use of Drug-Prescribing Data: Report Drug Cos. Use False Information in Marketing Campaigns: Study Medicare Operators Often Give Wrong Info on Drug Benefit: Report

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

Expert Calls H5N1 Bird-Flu Virus 'Worst' He's Seen

Speaking at a bird-flu conference in Singapore, a U.S. infectious-disease expert said the H5N1 avian-flu virus is the worst flu virus he's ever encountered, and added that a pandemic may prove difficult to control because of deficiencies in knowledge and planning.

"I've worked with flu all my life, and this is the worst influenza virus that I have ever seen," Robert G. Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. told the Associated Press.

When the H5N1 virus infects poultry, it moves into the brain and destroys the respiratory tract -- making the virus a vicious killer, he said.

"If that happens in humans, God help us," Webster said.

Since 2003, there have been about 206 reported human cases of bird flu. Most of those were caused by direct contact with infected birds. But experts worry that the H5N1 virus may mutate into a form that's easily transmitted between humans.

It would take at least 10 more mutations before the H5N1 virus could reach that point, but there's no way to know when, or if, it will happen, Webster told the AP.

He called for more influenza vaccine to be stockpiled and criticized current efforts to build those stockpiles as "miserable."

In related news, the U.S. government announced Thursday that it has awarded $1 billion to five companies to develop and produce cell culture based-influenza vaccines within the country.

Cell culture-based vaccines would provide a quicker way of producing vaccines than the current egg-based technique, which would not be able to meet U.S. demand in the event of a pandemic. Cell culture-based vaccine manufacturing is used in many other modern vaccines.

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Tamiflu Prevents Death in Mammals With Bird Flu

The antiviral drug Tamiflu prevented mammals infected with the dangerous H5N1 bird flu virus from dying, says a U.S. study presented this week at a conference in Singapore.

The findings may offer clues about the drug's optimum dosage and the duration of treatment needed to protect humans in the event of a pandemic, the Associated Press reported.

Researcher Elena Govorkova of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., told the conference that ferrets were given Tamifu after being infected with the H5N1 virus circulating in Vietnam. All of the animals survived.

Ferrets that were infected with H5N1 but did not receive Tamiflu died.

An abstract of the study said the results show the benefits of early treatment with the drug, and are in line with the limited research that's been published about the use of Tamiflu to fight bird flu in humans, the AP reported.

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CDC Awards $10 Million to Research Health-Care-Related Infections

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded $10 million to five academic research centers to develop and test new ways of reducing infections in hospitals and other health-care settings.

The funding, announced Thursday, is part of the CDC's Prevention Epicenter grant program. The money will be used in research on health-care-associated infections, including: antimicrobial resistant infections; surgical site infections; Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea; drug-resistant staph infections; and catheter-associated bloodstream infections.

Each year in the United States, about one million infections are acquired in health-care settings, resulting in about 90,000 deaths and more than $4.5 billion in excess health-care costs, the CDC said.

The emergence of drug-resistant infections and new pathogens in health-care settings makes it even more important to find new ways to detect and fight health-care-associated infections, the agency said.

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Doctors Upset Over Use of Drug-Prescribing Data: Report

Some American doctors are rebelling against the gathering of computerized data on their drug prescribing habits, information that's used by drug company sales representatives to target specific physicians.

In an effort to placate angry doctors and head off potential government action, the American Medical Association (AMA) plans to give individual physicians the choice of having their prescription records kept out of the hands of drug sales representatives, The New York Times reported.

Many doctors regard the use of this data by salespeople as an intrusion into the way they practice medicine. A 2004 poll commissioned by the AMA found that two-thirds of doctors did not want such data given to drug company sales staff and 77 percent of the doctors believed an opt-out program would ease concerns about the release of data.

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Drug Cos. Use False Information in Marketing Campaigns: Study

Drug companies routinely exaggerate claims about their products, promote unproven uses, and play down drugs' risks in their marketing to customers and doctors, says a report by the U.S. national consumer advocacy organization Public Interest Research Group.

False and misleading information is used in television and print ads and in literature given to doctors by drugs sales representatives, said the report, which added that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is often ineffective at stopping such deception, the Associated Press reported.

About 62 percent of the misleading or deceptive information documented in the report was targeted at doctors. In more than one-third of those instances, doctors received information that misrepresented or minimized a drug's risk, the report said.

The report also said that drug companies used clinical trials as marketing tools by misreporting results or by suppressing unfavorable results, the AP reported.

The FDA did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment on the report, the AP said.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the report "grossly misleads the public about the safety of America's drug system and the goals, practices and results of prescription pharmaceutical marketing and advertising."

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Medicare Operators Often Give Wrong Info on Drug Benefit: Report

Medicare telephone operators routinely failed to provide callers with accurate and complete information about the new prescription drug benefit, say U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators who posed as senior-citizen callers.

The investigators made 500 calls to the 1-800-Medicare line from Jan. 17 to Feb. 7 and asked five questions -- each question 100 times. About a third of the calls yielded incorrect responses or no response due to disconnected calls, the Associated Press reported.

The GAO found that 75 percent of calls were answered within five minutes. However, for more than 10 percent of calls, Medicare operators took more than 15 minutes to answer.

"In one case, we were placed on hold for 54 minutes before being disconnected," the GAO investigators noted.

The findings prompted Democratic critics of the Medicare drug benefit to again request an extension of the program's May 15 enrollment deadline, the AP reported.

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