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Health Highlights: Oct. 20, 2006

Governments Target Phony Diabetes Cures Canada Allows Return of Silicone Breast Implants Study Looks at Risks of Ritalin in Preschoolers Embryonic Stem Cells Turned into Insulin Producers Meningitis Shot Boosts Risk for Paralyzing Condition

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

Governments Target Phony Diabetes Cures

American, Canadian, and Mexican government agencies have launched a campaign to stop Internet advertisements for fraudulent diabetes cures and treatments.

About 180 warning letters and other advisories have been sent to online outlets in the three countries.

"The Internet can be a great source of information, but it also is a billboard for ads that promise miracle cures for diabetes and other serious diseases. Our advice to consumers: 'Be smart, be skeptical' when evaluating health claims online," Lydia Parnes, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said in a prepared statement.

As part of the crackdown, the FTC has sent warning letters for deceptive ads to 84 American and seven Canadian Web sites targeting U.S. consumers. It has also referred an additional 21 sites to foreign governments.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent warning letters to 24 companies that market dietary supplement products touted to treat, cure, or prevent diabetes.

The FTC also has launched a new campaign to educate consumers on how to avoid phony diabetes cures. The American Dietetic Association will help distribute the information.

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Canada Allows Silicone Breast Implants Back on Market

Canada will lift restrictions on the use of silicone gel breast implants, which were pulled from the market in 1992 due to health concerns, including suspected heart problems and autoimmune diseases.

Health Canada said Friday that it will allow plastic surgeons to use silicone gel implants for breast augmentation or for reconstruction in patients who have had breast cancer surgery, the Canadian Press reported.

The agency made the decision after a review by an expert panel and public hearings. In recent years, companies that make the implants have been lobbying to have them allowed back on the Canadian market.

Despite the ban, some 10,000 silicone breast implants in Canada been approved in the past two years under a special program that gives patients access to non-approved medical devices or drugs, the CP reported.

Silicone implants were also removed from the U.S. market in the early 1990s. In July 2005, the Food and Drug Administration told two companies it would allow them to resume U.S. sales of the implants if the companies met certain conditions. Neither company has yet received new marketing approval from the FDA.

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Study Looks at Risks of Ritalin in Preschoolers

The attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug Ritalin does offer some benefits to children under age six with severe problems, according to researchers who conducted a long-term U.S. government-funded study.

However, the study also found that preschoolers required careful monitoring because they were more likely to develop side effects than older children who take the drug, the Associated Press reported.

About 40 percent of the 165 children who took low doses of the drug during the study suffered side effects and about 11 percent dropped out because of problems such as weight loss, irritability, slowed growth, and insomnia.

But the researchers concluded that the benefits of low-dose Ritalin treatment outweigh the risks for very young children with severe ADHD, the AP reported. Several of the researchers have financial ties to companies that make ADHD drugs, including Ritalin.

The findings appear in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In the United States, Ritalin is not approved for use in children under age six. However, previous research has found that about 1 in 100 preschoolers have been prescribed Ritalin in what's known as "off-label" use, the AP reported.

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Embryonic Stem Cells Turned into Insulin Producers

A process to turn human embryonic stem cells into pancreatic stem cells that are able to produce insulin and other hormones has been developed by the California biotechnology company Novocell.

The research was published online Thursday by the journal Nature Biotechnology.

This represents an advance in efforts to use embryonic stem cells to replace the insulin-producing cells that are destroyed by the immune system in people with type 1 diabetes, The New York Times reported.

However, scientists still need to conduct years of research before this approach may lead to a therapy for people with type 1 diabetes, the newspaper said.

"[The study] provides some very strong evidence that it will be possible to make insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells from human E.S. (embryonic stem) cells in a culture dish," Dr. Mark A. Magnuson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an e-mail message to the Times.

The Novocell team achieved an efficiency of cell conversion and insulin production in "orders of magnitude higher than anything previously accomplished," Magnuson said.

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Meningitis Shot Boosts Risk for Paralyzing Condition

A new meningitis vaccine may slightly raise the risk for a paralyzing condition in young people who receive it, but experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there's an even greater risk of meningitis for individuals who go without the shot.

The condition in question, called Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), is characterized by increasing weakness in the legs. According to a report released Thursday in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the total added risk for GBS was 1.25 cases for every 1 million doses of the new vaccine, called Menactra.

Drug maker Sanofi Pasteur said it had already tested the vaccine on 10,000 people so far and found no cases of GBS. Menactra was first approved by the U.S. government in January of 2005, and the CDC soon recommended routine vaccination for students entering high school and college.

Between March 2005 and September 2006, 17 people, most of them teenagers, developed GBS within 6 weeks of receiving a Menactra shot. But experts say a certain number of those cases would have occurred naturally. Meningitis is much more prevalent than GBS, they added, so an unvaccinated youth has about 10 times the risk of getting the illness than a vaccinated youth does of contracting GBS.

In related news, a study published in the same journal finds that more than half of U.S. states report that they've reached the Healthy People 2010 goal of more than 95 percent coverage for each of the vaccines recommended for children starting kindergarten. The remaining states are making progress to achieve that goal, CDC researchers say.

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