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Health Highlights: Oct. 17, 2006

FDA Approves New Diabetes Drug Study Warns About Caffeine Abuse Former President Ford Released From Hospital U.S. Military Plans to Resume Mandatory Anthrax Shots Consumers Need Better Info on Seafood: Report Many Americans Have Trouble Paying Medical Bills: Survey

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

FDA Approves New Diabetes Drug

A new drug to treat type 2 diabetes was approved Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The drug Januvia (sitagliptin phosphate) is unlike any other oral drug for people with type 2 diabetes. It's designed to enhance the body's own ability to lower blood sugar levels. Clinical trials found that the drug works as well as older diabetes drugs, but causes fewer side effects such as weight gain, the Associated Press reported.

Januvia, which is made by Merck & Co., is expected to cost between $3 and $6 a day. Some older diabetes drugs cost 50 cents a day.

The new drug works by increasing levels of a hormone that tells the pancreas to produce more insulin to process blood sugar and also instructs the liver to stop making glucose. Januvia does this by blocking production of an enzyme (DPP-4) that inactivates this hormone, the AP reported.

"For the millions of Americans with type 2 diabetes, who continue to have inadequate blood sugar control, the approval of Januvia marks an important advance in the fight against diabetes," said Dr. Steven Galson, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

"We now have another new option that treats the disease in an entirely new way that can be added to existing treatment regimens to help patients gain more control over their blood sugar levels," Galson said.

About 20 million Americans have type 2 diabetes.

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Study Warns About Caffeine Abuse

Caffeine abuse may be a growing problem among young Americans, suggests a three-year Northwestern University study of phone calls to the Illinois Poison Center in Chicago.

The researchers identified more than 250 cases of medical complications caused by taking caffeine pills or supplements. The average age of those who abused caffeine was 21, NBC News reported.

Caffeine alone was abused in 186 (68 percent) of the 250 cases and abused with other pharmaceutical products in 81 (29 percent) of the cases, the study said. It also found that the use of other pharmaceutical products along with caffeine abuse was significantly associated with hospitalizations.

"Part of the problem is that people do not think of caffeine as a drug, but rather as a food product," said researcher Dr. Danielle McCarthy. "We want people ingesting caffeine pills and supplements to know that caffeine is a drug, and overuse is potentially harmful, especially when mixed with other pharmaceuticals for euphoria. There is a trend in the pro-drug culture towards promoting legal alternatives to illegal drugs, and it can be very harmful."

The study was released Monday at the annual meeting of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

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Former President Ford Released From Hospital

Former President Gerald Ford, 93, went home Monday after he spent five days in a California hospital for undisclosed medical tests.

Ford was admitted Oct. 12 to Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. On Monday, he returned to his Thunderbird Estates compound about a mile from the hospital, his chief of staff, Penny Circle, said.

She did not disclose the types of tests conducted on Ford, the Associated Press reported.

In July, Ford received a cardiac pacemaker and had angioplasty, as well as the placement of stents, to increase blood flow in two of his coronary arteries. In July, he spent a few days hospitalized due to shortness of breath. Five years ago, the former president suffered two small strokes.

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U.S. Military Plans to Resume Mandatory Anthrax Shots

The U.S. Department of Defense said Monday that it will resume mandatory anthrax vaccinations for more than 200,000 troops and defense contractors within 60 days.

The program was halted in October 2004 due to a lawsuit by six former or current service members who said the vaccine had not been proved safe or effective. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the vaccine final approval last December, which cleared the way for the Pentagon to resume the mandatory vaccinations, the Washington Post reported.

Under the program, anthrax vaccinations will be required for most military units and civilian contractors deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or South Korea and for those assigned to homeland bioterrorism defense.

However, a lawyer for the six plaintiffs said they plan to file a new lawsuit challenging the federal government's contention that human studies from the 1950s and more recent animal tests prove that the vaccine is safe and effective, the Post reported.

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Consumers Need Better Info on Seafood: Report

Consumers need more complete information on the nutritional value and health risks associated with fish and shellfish, says a new report by the Institute of Medicine.

The report reviews the scientific evidence on seafood's benefits and risks and offers examples of how such information might be presented in a more easily understood way to the public. It calls for federal agencies to team up with state, local, and private groups to develop new informational tools and test them with consumers to make sure they work.

"Consumers need better guidance on making seafood choices," said Malden C. Nesheim, professor emeritus and provost emeritus at Cornell University, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Much of the evidence on seafood's health benefits and risks is preliminary or insufficient, the committee found. But, the panel confirmed that eating fish and shellfish may reduce people's overall risk for developing heart disease. It is not certain whether this is because substituting the lean protein of seafood for fatty cuts of meat reduces consumers' intake of saturated fat and cholesterol or because of the protective effects of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in relatively high amounts in many fish species.

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Many Americans Have Trouble Paying Medical Bills: Survey

A new survey found that 25 percent of Americans said that they or a household family member had trouble paying medical bills during the past year. That's the highest percentage in a series of polls since 1997.

Of the respondents who reported problems, 69 percent had health insurance.

The Health Care in America Survey of 1,201 adults was conducted between Sept. 7 and 12, 2006. Key findings include:

  • 28 percent of respondents said that in the past year they or a family member have put off medical treatment because of the cost. Of those who delayed treatment, 70 percent said they needed care for a serious medical condition.
  • Among those with health insurance, 60 percent are worried about not being able to afford coverage over the next few years -- 27 percent said they are very worried.
  • 54 percent of those without health insurance said they don't have it because they can't afford it.
  • 80 percent said they're dissatisfied with the overall cost of healthcare to the nation. Cost came out ahead of quality when they were asked about their own healthcare.

The survey was conducted jointly by the Kaiser Family Foundation, ABC News, and USA Today.

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