Health Highlights: Nov. 15, 2002

FDA Warns Painkiller Can Cause Serious Reactions Drugmakers Offer Elderly Discounted Generic Brands FBI Warns Hospitals about Terrorist Threats Mercury Safe in Dental Fillings, Feds Say New Cervical Cancer Detection Guidelines Issued Docs Frown on Requiring Prior Approval for Drugs

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

FDA Warns Painkiller Can Cause Serious Reactions

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that a new painkiller called Bextra has been associated with potentially fatal skin diseases, and that anyone who develops a rash after taking it should stop the drug immediately.

Since March, when Bextra sales first began, there have been about 20 reported cases of complications arising from the drug, including the skin diseases Stevens-Johnson syndrome, toxic epidermal necrolysis, exfoliative dermatitis, and allergic reactions, the Associated Press reports.

The FDA estimates that by the time the dangerous side effects were reported, about 800,000 to 1 million people had already begun taking Bextra, which is an anti-inflammatory used to treat arthritis and menstrual pain.

Dr. Lawrence Goldkind, the agency's deputy director for painkillers, said there is less chance of a severe reaction occurring if users stop Bextra at the first hint of a rash.

The FDA also said anyone allergic to drugs containing sulfa should not take Bextra.

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Drugmakers Offer Elderly Discounted Generic Brands

Seven U.S. brand-name drug manufacturers will include generic drugs in a program they've created that offers low-income seniors discounts on prescriptions, despite the lower sales and profits generated by no-name brands.

Peggy Heller, a spokeswoman for the program called Together Rx, said beginning Sunday, Eckerd drugstores will offer members about a 30 percent discount on generic drugs.

Together Rx membership is available to elderly Americans who are "enrolled in Medicare, have no public or private drug coverage, and have annual incomes of less than $28,000 for individuals or $38,000 for couples," the New York Times reports.

Heller said about 380,000 people have already joined and have collectively saved more than $12 million on prescriptions.

Seniors interested in applying for a Together Rx discount card can call toll-free (800) 865-7211.

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FBI Warns Hospitals about Terrorist Threats

The FBI has alerted hospitals in four different American cities to possible terrorist threats, but the White House has downplayed the warnings as vague and uncorroborated.

The information, garnered from CIA operatives in Pakistan, said hospitals in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., may be targets for bomb or anthrax attacks during the December holiday period, the Houston Chronicle reports.

In the wake of Sept. 11, most hospitals in the four cities have already tightened their security. With the latest threat, medical administrators have reminded their staff to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity in or around the institutions, while reassuring the public that the premises are safe.

White House officials have dismissed the threats as having "very low credibility" and they have chastised the FBI for unnecessarily raising the alarm.

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Mercury Safe in Dental Fillings, Feds Say

Two U.S. government agencies, countering public doubts that mercury dental fillings may be unsafe, say they haven't found any proof that the fillings are dangerous.

Amalgam fillings, which contain mercury and a mix of other metals, have been used for more than 100 years, reports the Associated Press. But critics claim they cause brain disorders, notably autism in children born to parents with the fillings. Congress has introduced legislation to ban the fillings by 2007.

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say they're awaiting results of two significant NIH studies in 2006 before making a definitive statement.

However, in a Congressional hearing yesterday, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) questioned why the FDA can warn pregnant women and young children to avoid fish that contain high levels of mercury, while sanctioning the metal's use in dental fillings. "Mercury is mercury," he told fellow members of the House Government Reform Committee.

The American Dental Association says the mercury in fillings is a different, safer, form of the metal than is found in foods, and that amalgam fillings are cheaper and more reliable than other types, the AP reports.

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New Cervical Cancer Detection Guidelines Issued

Concerned that many women are over-screened and over-treated for possible cases of cervical cancer, the American Cancer Society has issued new guidelines that revise standards for when and how often women should get early detection tests.

Under the new guidelines:

  • Cervical cancer screening should begin about three years after a woman begins having vaginal intercourse, but no later than at age 21.
  • A pap test should be performed every two years. At or after age 30, women with three consecutive normal pap tests may get screened every two to three years. A doctor may want to screen more frequently if a woman has the HIV virus that causes AIDS, or if she has other conditions that leave her with a weakened immune system.
  • Women 70 or older with at least three normal test results and no abnormal ones in the last 10 years can choose to stop cervical cancer screening.
  • Screening after a total hysterectomy -- including removal of the cervix -- is unnecessary, unless the procedure was performed as a result of cervical cancer. Women who have had a hysterectomy that doesn't include removal of the cervix should be screened according to the guidelines above.

The new guidelines are published in the November/December issue of CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

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Docs Frown on Requiring Prior Approval for Drugs

Some 92 percent of U.S. physicians surveyed say recent efforts to require some patients to obtain prior approval before they can obtain lifesaving drugs would endanger lives, according to a new poll sponsored by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

The doctors say the rules would take decision-making from the physicians and place it in the hands of insurers, who aren't in a position to always know what's best for patients.

The physicians say prior approval would affect patients who often need emergency or acute care most, including people with low incomes and the elderly. They add that people who require treatment for urgent medical situations -- including asthma, for example -- wouldn't have time to seek prior approval.

The Harris Interactive survey, taken online on Nov. 5 and 6, involved responses from 315 primary care physicians.

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