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Health Highlights: Sept. 26, 2006

U.S. Health Insurance Premiums Outpace Inflation Most Arthritis Drugs Offer Same Benefits, Risks Scientists Complete Map of Mouse Brain New Warnings Added for Colorectal Cancer Drug Possible Human-to-Human Bird Flu Transmission in Indonesia

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

U.S. Health Insurance Premiums Outpace Inflation

U.S. health insurance premiums increased by 7.7 percent this year, more than twice the rate of inflation, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent health care research organization.

The increase in premiums is the smallest since 1999. However, health insurance premiums have increased 78 percent overall since 2000, while wages have increased by 20 percent, the Associated Press reported.

"Yes, the rate of increase is down, but I don't think anybody is celebrating," Dr. Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation, told the AP.

Overall, the average cost of health insurance for an individual is now $4,242 a year and $11,480 a year per family.

The telephone survey included 3,159 randomly selected private and public employers, the AP reported. More than 155 million Americans get their health insurance through their workplace. On average, employers pay 84 percent of the cost of health insurance for individuals and 73 percent for families.

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Most Arthritis Drugs Offer Same Benefits, Risks

Two classes of drugs -- non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and COX-2 inhibitors -- commonly used to treat osteoarthritis (OA) provide about the same level of pain relief and carry a similar increased risk of heart attack, concludes a U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report released Tuesday.

One exception is the NSAID naproxen (Aleve), which may present a lower risk of heart attack than other NSAIDs or COX-2 inhibitors, the report said.

The authors reviewed 360 published studies on 26 drugs. Among their conclusions:

  • All NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors can cause or worsen hypertension, congestive heart failure, swelling and impaired kidney function.
  • Most NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors pose similar increased risks of heart attack.
  • There's no clear difference in pain relief effectiveness among NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors.
  • The risk for serious adverse gastrointestinal events among people taking Celebrex is about the same as for those taking Motrin, Advil, Voltaren and other NSAIDs.
  • More research is needed to compare the cardiac and gastrointestinal risks of aspirin at doses effective for OA-related pain relief versus other NSAIDs.
  • Acetaminophen is generally less effective against OA-related pain than NSAIDs, but carries a smaller risk of gastrointestinal problems.

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Scientists Complete Map of Mouse Brain

U.S. scientists have completed a map of the mouse brain that includes details of individual cells, the Associated Press reported.

The map is available online free of charge to neuroscientists studying brain circuitry and chemistry. Since there are similarities between the brains of mice and humans, this information could aid research into neurological disorders and a number of diseases.

This mapping project found that more than 80 percent of genes in the body are switched on in the brain, while previous studies put that number at 60 percent to 70 percent, the AP reported.

The mouse brain map, announced Tuesday, is the first project to be completed by the Allen Institute of Brain Science, funded by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Scientists at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle are already using the new Allen Brain Atlas to study the genetics of brain cancers, the AP reported.

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New Warnings Added for Colorectal Cancer Drug

New warnings about the risk of a brain-bleeding condition and deterioration of nasal tissue have been added to the labeling of the colorectal cancer drug Avastin.

The new warnings, outlined on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site, say the drug can cause a rare brain-capillary leak that can trigger headache, seizure, blindness and other vision and neurological problems, the Associated Press reported.

Drug maker Genentech said the condition, which is reversible, has been reported in less than 0.1 percent of the 60,000 patients treated with Avastin.

The labeling changes also include a warning of possible nasal septum perforation in patients taking Avastin, the AP said. This condition, which results in a small hole between the cartilage separating the two nostrils and includes side effects such as bleeding and nasal discharge, has been reported in seven patients taking the drug.

Genentech is currently seeking FDA approval for Avastin as a treatment for advanced lung cancer and breast cancer.

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Possible Human-to-Human Bird Flu Transmission in Indonesia

A possible cluster case of human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 bird flu virus is being investigated by Indonesian officials.

The situation involves three brothers, ages 25, 20, and 15, who developed symptoms of bird flu. The oldest brother died Sunday, but was buried without any test samples taken from his body, Agence France Presse reported.

The other two brothers are in a hospital that's a government-appointed center for treatment of bird-flu patients.

"As the three are blood-related and suffer from the same symptoms, we are suspecting a new cluster case here, but we still have to make the necessary tests to ascertain what they are suffering from," Fatimah Resmiati, an official in the West Java health office, told AFP.

Resmiati said the family regularly fed dead chickens to their dogs. This means the three brothers may have contracted the virus from poultry, rather than each other. Samples have been taken from the rest of the brothers' family and their close neighbors.

Health experts say that cluster cases of human-to-human transmission increase the risk of the H5N1 virus mutating into a version that's easily transmitted between people, which could result in a global pandemic.

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