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Health Highlights: Dec. 10, 2004

Fewer Teens Having Sex, U.S. Says Ford Recalls SUVs Over Accelerator Problem Extension Urged for Freeze on Teaching Hospital Penalties James Brown Has Prostate Cancer Glaxo to Test Flu Vaccine in U.S. Clinical Trials Possible Genetic Link to Depression Found

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

Fewer Teens Having Sex, U.S. Says

Fewer American teenagers are having sex, and those who do are using contraceptives more often, according to a new survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The decline was sharpest among boys and younger teenage girls. According to the survey, the rate of females between the ages of 15 and 17 who reported ever having sexual intercourse fell from 38 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2002. The rate among older teenagers barely changed in that time period, though.

Among boys between the ages of 15 and 17, the rate dropped from 43 percent in 1995 to 31 percent in 2002, the survey said; among those 18 and 19 years old, it fell from 75 percent to 64 percent.

When they do engage in intercourse, they are likelier to use birth control, the survey found. And contraceptive use rose to 79 percent in 1999-2002 from 61 percent in the 1980s. The teenagers were also more likely to have used contraception at their most recent intercourse in 2002. Two out of three used a condom, according to the results.

"More teenagers are avoiding or postponing sexual activity, which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy or emotional and societal responsibilities for which they are not prepared," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

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Ford Recalls SUVs Over Accelerator Problem

Ford Motor Co. announced Friday that it was recalling 474,000 Escape sport utility vehicles because of a faulty cable that can cause the engine to race.

The automaker said no accidents have been reported so far, the Associated Press reported. The problem was discovered through field reports and warranty information, the company said.

Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman, told the wire service that the SUVs involved are from the 2002-2004 model years and that the great majority were sold in the United States.

According to the AP account, a liner above the accelerator cable may prevent the engine from returning to idle, causing it to rev up. Owners will be notified by Ford and can have the cable replaced free of charge.

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Extension Urged for Freeze on Teaching Hospital Penalties

Teaching hospitals that use volunteer doctors to teach medical residents in community care settings may not have resume paying the U.S. government for their time.

The acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is recommending that Congress extend a moratorium on financial penalties demanding repayment of Medicare funding for family medicine residents' time in office settings with volunteer teachers.

Starting in 2002, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services demanded repayment of Medicare funds that paid for the cost of resident education for time spent in non-hospital settings when teaching doctors were volunteering their services.

The greatest impact was seen among those training to be family or private practice doctors, because they were most likely to train in non-hospital settings like offices and clinics. In these places, 85 percent of the teachers are volunteers, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, which supports an extension of the freeze.

That practice was suspended this year as part of the Medicare prescription drug law. The moratorium is scheduled to lift on Jan. 1, but Daniel Levinson, the acting inspector general, said it should be continued while alternatives are sought.

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James Brown Has Prostate Cancer

Recording legend James Brown has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and will have surgery on Wednesday, according to a statement released by the singer.

"I have overcome a lot of things in my life. I will overcome this as well," read the statement from the 71-year-old "Godfather of Soul." He's also a diabetic, according to the Associated Press, although he's often referred to as the hardest working person in show business.

Brown said he plans a three-week reprieve from his busy schedule to recover from the surgery. His statement mentioned neither how early the cancer was discovered nor his medical prognosis for recovery.

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Glaxo to Test Flu Vaccine in U.S. Clinical Trials

On the heels of this week's U.S. government announcement that it plans to buy up to 4 million emergency doses of GlaxoSmithKline's flu vaccine, the British drug giant says it will sponsor a 1,000-person clinical trial of the vaccine to verify its safety.

In a statement, Glaxo said the Phase III trial of its Fluarix vaccine will start this month at four U.S. hospital centers -- the University of Rochester Medical Center, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and Baylor College of Medicine. Participants will range from ages 18 to 64.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it was sanctioning the purchase of some 4 million doses of Fluarix, even though the drug would be treated as experimental since it hadn't been formally approved for use in the United States. The FDA has been scouring for additional flu vaccine since October, when the British government shut down a major supplier due to contamination problems.

Meanwhile, a company that had predicted it would modernize the way flu vaccine is produced said it is suspending human trials of the new inoculation, citing an increased incidence of fever and other flu symptoms.

According to an account in the Chicago Tribune, Baxter International Inc. is trying to develop a vaccine that doesn't rely on a 60-year-old method of using chicken eggs. The company had predicted that its new method using cell tissues was likely to eliminate future vaccine shortages.

The setback could mean Baxter's vaccine is at least four years away from widespread U.S. distribution, analysts told the newspaper.

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Possible Genetic Link to Depression Found

Duke University researchers have discovered a possible genetic link to depression that could explain why some people don't benefit from antidepressive drugs, The New York Times reported Friday.

"We might be able to predict, based on the presence of this gene variation, whether someone will respond to certain antidepressants," U.S. National Institute of Mental Health director Dr. Thomas Insel told the newspaper. The NIMH helped fund the study.

The Duke researchers identified a gene mutation that significantly reduced the amount of serotonin produced by the brain. The effects of the chemical, which has a powerful influence on mood, are prolonged in most users by antidepressant drugs like Prozac and Zoloft.

Previous tests on mice revealed that the same genetic mutation caused about an 80 percent drop in serotonin production, the Times report said.

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