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Health Highlights: Oct. 11, 2002

WHO Increases Estimated Smoking-Related Death Rate FDA Panel Urges Continued Gene Therapy Research Cancer Life Expectancy Rates Are Longer Woman Awarded $2.2B in Diluted Cancer-Drug Lawsuit Monthly Contraceptive Recalled for Low Potency Judge: Paxil Ads Can Cite Non-Dependency

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

WHO Increases Estimated Smoking-Related Death Rate

The World Health Organization has revised its estimate on the number of people expected to die each year from smoking-related causes -- and it's not for the better.

The WHO says it now projects that illnesses related to smoking kill about 4.9 million people around the world each year. Two years ago, the number was estimated to be just 4 million.

In addition, the WHO had projected that the number of deaths annually by the year 2030 would be 10 million. It now says that estimate was too low, reports the Associated Press.

The organization says the revised figures reflect new research on tobacco's impact on tuberculosis and heart deaths in China and India.

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FDA Panel Urges Continued Gene Therapy Research

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has recommended that experiments using a gene therapy to treat children with fatal immune system disorders should continue despite serious side effects.

All studies using the therapy on children with the rare but deadly severe combined immune deficiency, or SCID, were halted in September when a 3-year-old French boy came down with an illness similar to leukemia following the therapy.

In its recommendation, the panel acknowledged the severity of the event, but said it was not enough to advise putting all programs on hold. Three such experiments that were being conducted in the U.S. have been suspended since the boy fell ill.

Gene therapy involves the use of viruses to introduce healthy genes into cells, reports the New York Times. The therapy was considered a success until the boy's was stricken with the disease. The panel recommended resuming the experiments on the condition that all gene therapy patients receiving retroviruses, which were used on the French boy, must now be informed that such a virus had apparently caused cancer in a child.

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Cancer Life Expectancy Rates Are Longer

Life expectancies for people diagnosed with cancer may be longer than we think, reports HealthDay.

A study appearing in this week's issue of The Lancet computes 20-year survival estimates that are 1 percent to 11 percent higher for a range of cancers when calculated with a new method that uses up-to-date computer programs.

In the study, German researchers compared survival estimates using the relatively new "period analysis" method and the traditional "cohort method." The cohort method involves looking at longevity in patients who were diagnosed with cancer many years ago. Period analysis uses more recent data, theoretically reflecting advances in detection and treatment.

With period analysis, estimates of five-year, 10-year, 15-year and 20-year survival rates for all types of cancer were 63 percent, 57 percent, 53 percent and 51 percent, respectively. This represented increases of 1 percent, 7 percent, 11 percent and 11 percent, respectively, over the cohort-based analysis. Period analysis also showed 20-year survival rates that were remarkable high for various cancers.

"This is really good news and optimistic. It shows that in recent years more cancer patients are living longer," says Dr. Ruth Oratz, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. "We are making progress in the war against cancer."

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Woman Awarded $2.2B in Diluted Cancer-Drug Lawsuit

A Kansas City, Mo., jury has awarded $2.2 billion to a cancer patient whose pharmacist diluted the chemotherapy drugs she took.

Georgia Hayes, 44, was the first of some 400 people to file lawsuits against former pharmacist Robert Courtney, who has pleaded guilty to diluting the chemotherapy drugs for profit. He faces up to 30 years in prison.

Hayes, first diagnosed with cancer in 1996, now has ovarian cancer, reports the Associated Press. Her attorneys claimed she is sicker today because of the watered-down drugs.

Courtney has been stripped of his pharmacist's license and was forced to sell two pharmacies. Federal authorities say his scheme may have affected as many as 4,200 patients.

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Monthly Contraceptive Recalled for Low Potency

Pharmacia Corp. is recalling the injectable Lunelle monthly contraceptive, citing possible lack of full potency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says.

The recall applies only to Lunelle packaged in prefilled syringes, not to the product packaged in vials. Women who have been using Lunelle are advised to seek the advice of their doctors in selecting a different form of contraception, the company says.

Pharmacia says the affected lots were distributed in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands during 2002. All doctors, clinics and pharmacists who dispensed the product are being notified, the company says.

For more information, contact Pharmacia at 1-888-691-6813.

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Judge: Paxil Ads Can Cite Non-Dependency

Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline may advertise its anti-depressant drug Paxil as non-habit forming, a federal judge has ruled, reversing her earlier edict.

U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer had ruled in August that Glaxo couldn't use the language in its TV ads. But she reconsidered the ruling after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration argued before her that it had approved the commercials after analyzing the drug's effects on patients, reports the Associated Press.

Though the FDA acknowledged that Paxil and similar drugs could cause unwanted side effects if abruptly discontinued, the agency had contended before Pfaelzer that it only classifies a drug as "habit-forming" if it causes "drug-seeking behavior, often with the user escalating the dose for psychological or physical gratification."

Paxil, which has been prescribed some 100 million times since its 1991 approval, is the focus of a civil lawsuit in which 35 litigants allege that they suffered nausea, fever, and "electric zap" sensations when they stopped using the drug.

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