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Health Highlights: Aug. 8, 2005

Research Leads to Clues About Fatal Sleep Apnea Pop Star's Breast Cancer Leads to Dramatic Increase in Screenings Smallpox Shot Stopped U.S. Monkeypox Fatalities: Study FDA Adopts a More Cautious Approach: Report

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

Research Leads to Clues About Fatal Sleep Apnea

The cumulative loss of special cells in the area of the brain that controls breathing may account for fatal cases of sleep apnea -- a condition in which a person stops breathing in the middle of sleep, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles say.

The scientists injected rats with a substance to kill more than half of the special cells in an area of the brain called the preBötzinger complex. Then they noticed that when the animals entered the rapid-eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, they stopped breathing and were jolted awake in order to start breathing again, BBC News Online reported.

Over time, the breathing lapses increased in frequency and severity and eventually began happening when the animals were awake, the network reported. The cells involved in the experiment do not replenish when they die.

The UCLA team said the condition called central sleep apnea may often be misdiagnosed in elderly people as heart failure, the BBC reported. The condition poses a particular risk to seniors, whose heart and lungs often are already weakened.

Fatal cases of the condition probably occur when victims eventually are unable to wake themselves when breathing stops, the researchers said.

The study appears in the current issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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Pop Star's Breast Cancer Leads to Dramatic Increase in Screenings

Bookings for breast cancer screenings in Australia rose by 40 percent in the weeks after pop singer Kylie Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer in May and had surgery to remove a lump, says a University of Sydney study.

The study also found a 101 percent increase in bookings among women aged 40 to 69 who'd never been screened for breast cancer. The study was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Simon Chapman, professor of public health, looked at the number of booked mammograms for the Australian government's BreastScreen program in the 19 weeks before, two weeks during, and six weeks after extensive media coverage of the Australian pop singer's breast cancer, BBC News reported.

Chapman said the study showed that media stories about health and medicine can result in dramatic changes in people's health behavior. He said capitalizing on public interest in an illness suffered by a celebrity can lead to news coverage of health topics that equal levels that would normally require expensive public awareness campaigns, BBC News Online reported.

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Smallpox Shot Stopped U.S. Monkeypox Fatalities: Study

The smallpox shot millions of Americans got as children apparently protected some people who got infected in the monkeypox outbreak in 2003, new research suggests.

As many as 100 million Americans have at least some residual protection from smallpox vaccines they received as children, even if it was many decades ago, said Mark K. Slifka of Oregon Health & Science University, who led a team that conducted the study.

This potentially could be a benefit in the event of a bioterror attack, Slifka told the Associated Press.

The 2003 outbreak of monkeypox, a related illness, sickened 72 people in several midwestern states, but there were no deaths. While monkeypox kills about 10 percent of its victims in Africa, the lack of U.S. fatalities had been attributed to better medical care and the possibility that the strain of the disease was weaker than that in Africa.

Using a new test, researchers found that three of the Americans infected with monkeypox who developed no symptoms of the illness and five who had some symptoms but did not become severely ill all had an earlier smallpox shot.

This shows that the outbreak was larger than was realized and, more importantly, that protection against monkeypox can continue for decades after smallpox vaccination, the team led by Slifka reported Sunday in the online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.

Routine smallpox vaccination was halted in 1972 in the United States, more than 20 years after the last case of smallpox in this country.

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FDA Adopts a More Cautious Approach: Report

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is issuing twice as many advisories about potential risks posed by drugs and five times as many black-box warnings -- its highest alert -- as it did a year ago. And approval times for new drugs is nearly twice as slow, The New York Times reported Saturday.

This new caution comes in the wake of sharp criticism from some members of Congress and consumer advocates who said the agency was doing a poor job of protecting the public from risks posed by drugs.

Much of the criticism followed the revelation last year that certain powerful painkillers called cox-2 inhibitors could increase heart attack and stroke risks. The popular medicines Vioxx and Bextra were subsequently pulled from the market, and another, Celebrex, now carries a warning that it should be prescribed at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.

The FDA's new conservative approach has failed to appease federal lawmakers and upset some doctors, who say the agency's vague warnings and confusing advice mean that physicians aren't getting the information they need to avoid health problems but will get blamed for them anyway.

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