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Health Highlights: Dec. 18, 2004

Possible Bird Flu Cases in Japan Lung Cancer Drug Disappoints EPA: One-Third of Americans Breathe Dirty Air Older People Support Medical Marijuana Liver Risk Seen in ADHD Drug Stem Cells Used to Mend Skull Damage

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

Possible Bird Flu Cases in Japan

Health officials in Japan are investigating what may be the first human cases of avian influenza in the island nation.

Agence France-Presse reports that five people may have been infected with bird flu following an outbreak of the virus among poultry in February. None was seriously ill.

Four of the people were employees of an infected poultry farm, and the fifth worked for a crew that was disinfecting the farm, reported AFP. Health officials in Kyoto found bird flu antibodies in them, though no cases have yet been confirmed.

During the outbreak at the Asada Nosan Co., poultry farm, 240,000 chickens and 20 million eggs were destroyed to keep the virus under control, according to the wire service. In August, the company's president was jailed for a year for failing to report the outbreak.

Bird flu has gained a foothold in some Asian countries. In the last year, it has killed 12 people in Thailand and 20 in Vietnam, according to AFP.


Lung Cancer Drug Disappoints

A drug approved last year as a last-ditch hope for some lung cancer patients who didn't find relief from other forms of therapy has come up short in a large clinical trial.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported Friday that patients with non-small cell lung cancer taking the drug, AstraZeneca's Iressa (gefitinib), after failing other cancer treatment showed no survival benefit.

The FDA approved Iressa under an accelerated process that allows some drugs to be used when patients failed two other forms of therapy. Iressa was cleared because data from clinical trials showed that it caused significant shrinkage in tumors in about 10 percent of patients -- mostly women -- and this was thought likely to increase patients' overall survival time. Also under this process, drugmakers must continue testing the drug.

An FDA statement said that AstraZeneca studied whether 1,700 patients would survive longer compared with patients taking placebo, and they did not. The agency has yet to decide whether to remove Iressa from the market.


EPA: One-Third of Americans Breathe Dirty Air

About one in three Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of soot pollution in the air, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday.

EPA administrator Mike Leavitt said the designations, which will require 20 states and the District of Columbia to devise strategies within three years to reduce the level of tiny air particles linked to respiratory illness and premature death, are actually a sign of progress.

"Today's cleaner air represents more than four decades of progress since the signing of the first Clean Air Act in 1963, followed by the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the amendments in 1990. This is a clean air relay that gets better with each generation, and we are making more progress than ever before," Leavitt said in a statement.

According to the Washington Post, Leavitt said that, as of 2003, the average concentration of fine particles in the air nationwide had declined 10 percent since 1999, when the EPA began monitoring it. America's air, he said, is "cleaner than any time in memory, but we're not done yet."

Friday's listings identify which communities meet national air quality standards, established in 1997 under legal pressure from environmentalists, for particles that are about one-thirtieth the width of an average hair, the Post reported. This pollution, mainly soot from power plants, automobiles, forest fires, and heavy-duty diesel engines, can penetrate the lungs and worsen lung and heart disease.

If standards are met by 2010, they will prevent at least 15,000 premature deaths, 75,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 3.1 million days of missed work, according to the EPA statement.


Older People Support Medical Marijuana

More than seven out of 10 middle-aged and elderly people support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to a new poll.

The Associated Press reports that a new poll by the AARP, the largest advocacy organization for the elderly, decided to commission the survey in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear the case. The AARP hasn't taken a stance on the position.

The group polled more than 1,700 people 45 years old and older, and found that 72 percent felt that "adults should be allowed to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if a physician recommends it," according to the AP account. The opinions varied along regional and generational lines. Some 30 percent of those surveyed said they had smoked pot.

The survey was done because "the use of medical marijuana applies to many older Americans who may benefit from cannabis," Ed Dwyer, an editor at AARP The Magazine, told the wire service.

A dozen states allow have medicinal marijuana laws, which were enacted over the objections of the U.S. government. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the laws next spring.


Liver Risk Seen in ADHD Drug

Eli Lilly & Co. is warning doctors to discontinue the use of its attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug Strattera in patients who may have liver disease.

The company announced Friday that two patients taking the drug suffered "severe" liver injury, and that it was adding a stronger warning on the label.

The drug is approved for both adults and children with ADHD. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration statement said that one patient was an adult, and the second was a teenager; both were taking Strattera for several months, and both have since recovered fully.

The Lilly statement urged patients taking the drug to call their doctor immediately if they experience yellowing on their skin or in the whites of their eyes, if their skin itches, if their urine is dark, or if they experience pain or tenderness in the upper ride side of their abdomen. All could signal a liver problem.

According to Lilly, 2 million patients have taken Strattera.


Stem Cells Used to Mend Skull Damage

German scientists say they're the first to use stem cells to grow human bone, using the master cells to repair skull damage on a 7-year-old girl, the Associated Press reports.

Two years earlier, the unidentified girl had been involved in a fall, which destroyed portions of her skull totaling about 19 square inches, the wire service said. Prior surgeries had failed to correct the problems, and the girl was forced to wear a helmet.

Now she's helmet-free, the AP said, thanks to the stem cell procedure reported in December's Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery. The missing parts have been replaced by solid albeit thin bone, the researchers at the Justus-Liebig University Medical School said.

Lead surgeon Dr. Hans-Peter Howaldt said the stem cells derived from the girl's body fat were mixed with portions of her bone, and that the technique appeared to have created new bone tissue. The bone chips appeared to instruct the stem cells to make more bone, Howaldt speculated, although it wasn't possible to prove this theory, he conceded.

"I cannot prove that our success comes from the stem cells alone, but the combination of the two things simply worked," the wire service quoted him as say

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