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Health Highlights: Sept. 18, 2006

Global Tab for Bird Flu Could Hit $2 Trillion: Expert America Gets C- on 'Clean Hands' Report Card MRIs Can Be Done on People With Pacemakers: Study Bioterror Remedy Program Yielding Few Results: Report Novel Drug Approved for Fungal Infections Preemies Die After Getting Wrong Drug Doses

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

Global Tab for Bird Flu Could Hit $2 Trillion: Expert

Combatting a possible global human epidemic of avian flu could cost as much as $2 trillion, an expert told reporters Monday at an international monetary conference in Singapore.

A severe pandemic similar to the 1918 flu outbreak that killed millions of people across the globe could cause world economic losses in the trillions, according to Jim Adams, who chairs the World Bank's avian flu task force.

Much more than the $1.9 billion pledged earlier this year by the world's industrialized nations is needed to prepare for a possible pandemic, David Nabarro, United Nations coordinator for avian and pandemic flu, told the Bloomberg news service. Both experts were attending the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has infected at least 246 people in 10 nations, killing 144 since 2003, Bloomberg said. Experts have long predicted a possible pandemic if the virus, now largely confined to people who have direct contact with infected fowl, mutates into a form that's more easily transmitted from person to person.

"We cannot predict how it will happen, and so we encourage communities, governments and private entities to get prepared for a pandemic that might start any time," Nabbaro said.

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America Gets C- on 'Clean Hands' Report Card

Americans collectively have achieved only a C- on a trade group's assessment of the nation's hygiene health.

The Soap and Detergent Association's "Clean Hands Report Card" cites an increase in contagious skin infections, the threat of pandemic flu and the upcoming cold season. The group's prior survey in 2004 gave the country a C.

Among the latest assessment's findings:

  • 68 percent of respondents don't wash their hands long enough to effectively kill germs and remove dirt, the SDA said in a statement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should wash with soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • 36 percent surveyed seldom or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing.
  • 31 percent don't always wash before eating, exposing people to germs from sources such as money, door handles and lunch counters.

The SDA said people need to be better educated about the benefits of hand washing. The survey found that only 50 percent of respondents believed that the practice is the best way to prevent colds and flu, the group said.

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MRIs Can Be Done on People With Pacemakers: Study

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say they've figured out a way to perform a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test on people with many modern types of implanted pacemakers and defibrillators.

Performing MRIs on the people with the heart devices has been considered taboo out of fear that the devices could confuse radiofrequency generated by the MRI with an irregular heartbeat, the Hopkins researchers said in a statement.

The scientists said they've figured out how to reprogram the devices to make them "blind" to the MRI environment. They also turn off the devices' shocking function for the duration of the MRI -- usually from 30 to 60 minutes. Finally, they change the amount of electrical energy used by the MRI during peak scanning.

In the Sept. 18 issue of the journal Circulation, the researchers said their expanded use of MRI has already made more than a dozen potentially life-saving diagnoses.

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Bioterror Remedy Program Yielding Few Results: Report

A bioterror drug stockpiling program whose roots stem from the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks has produced only a fraction of the anticipated remedies, The New York Times reported Monday.

Project Bioshield, a $5.6 billion effort to gather remedies for a host of possible terror threats, is partly stymied by government agencies that can't seem to decide which treatments they want and in what quantities, the newspaper reported.

Also unable to attract the world's largest drugmakers, the government has enlisted smaller start-up firms with no proven history, the Times said.

The problem is most acute in development of a new anthrax vaccine. The two biotech firms picked for the $900 million effort have hired lobbyists to attack each other's pending products, and the delivery date is far behind schedule, the newspaper said.

Outside observers, including Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, offered grim assessments of Project Bioshield's progress.

"The inept implementation of the program has led the best brains and the best scientists to give up, to look elsewhere or devote their resources to medical initiatives that are not focused on biodefense," he told the Times.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged problems, but denied the project was floundering. "Medical discovery is an unpredictable process," spokesman Bill Hall told the newspaper. "It is the nature of science."

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Novel Drug Approved for Fungal Infections

A new molecular drug designed to prevent fungal infections in post-surgical patients and others with weaker immune systems has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Schering Corp.'s Noxafil (posaconazole) contains a substance that has never before been approved in the United States, the FDA said in a statement. The drug was approved to prevent infections caused by certain molds and yeast-like fungi called Aspergillus and Candida.

While people with healthy immune systems are normally unaffected by these fungi, they tend to cause invasive infections in people who have had bone-marrow transplants and people with low white blood cell counts, the agency said.

Noxafil's safety and effectiveness were evaluated in clinical trials involving 1,844 people between ages 13 and 82. Common side effects included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, a drop in blood potassium levels, and in rare cases, problems with heart or liver function.

The drug should be taken with a full meal to allow for adequate absorption into the body, the FDA said.

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Preemies Die After Getting Wrong Drug Doses

Two premature infants died after an Indianapolis hospital gave them adult doses of a blood thinner, the Associated Press reported.

Four other infants at Methodist Hospital also got adult doses of Heparin, the wire service said. One may require surgery and the other three were listed in serious condition.

The drug is frequently given to premature infants to prevent blood clots. Experts told the wire service that an overdose could lead to severe internal bleeding.

A hospital spokesman said pre-measured vials containing adult doses of the drug were mistakenly placed in a cabinet drawer that was reserved only for preemies. The packaging for both doses is similar, the AP said.

The hospital said it was investigating the incident and had taken unspecified steps to prevent a recurrence.

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