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Health Highlights: Dec. 28, 2004

Heart Expert Urges Review of Controversial Pain Drugs Familial Risk Seen in Some Cancers Ford Recalls SUVs for Second Time Officials Worry About Disease After Undersea Quake Study Faults Claims of Diet Plans

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

Heart Expert Urges Review of Controversial Pain Drugs

One of America's leading heart specialists is calling for less aggressive direct-to-consumer advertising of the arthritis pain drugs known as cox-2 inhibitors, in light of recent reports linking them to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Those drugs include celecoxib (brand name Celebrex) and rofecoxib (Vioxx), which was pulled from the market in September by its manufacturer, Merck & Co.

Pfizer Inc., the maker of Celebrex, announced last week that it was suspending direct-to-consumer advertising for the drug.

Dr. Eric J. Topol, of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, also called for better safety assurances of medications. His comments appear in a special article posted online Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article will be published in a print edition of the journal in early 2005.

Topol wrote that the cardiovascular risks of the various cox-2 inhibitors were not well-studied in clinical trials. "Based on data available in 2001 for celecoxib and rofecoxib, my colleagues and I concluded: 'It is mandatory to conduct a trial specifically assessing cardiovascular risk and benefit of these agents. Until then, we urge caution in prescribing these agents to patients at risk for cardiovascular morbidity.' Unfortunately, no such trials were ever initiated and the official warnings for the coxib [cox-2] drugs took years to materialize."

Topol also wrote that "more authority to the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to shape and require the execution of vital trials is perhaps the most important lesson from the coxibs."

"Legislation is needed to empower the FDA to require [the drug] industry to conduct trials that are deemed necessary to ensure the safety profile of a drug," he added.

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Familial Risk Seen in Some Cancers

Close relatives of cancer patients are often at a much higher risk of developing the same cancer themselves, according to a new study that also found even distant cousins of the patients face greater odds.

The study, appearing in the online issue of PLoS Medicine, tracked 32,000 cancer patients over 50 years. Although it relates only to Icelanders, it is relevant to other populations, The Guardian reported.

For instance, parents, siblings, and children of lip cancer patients face about five times greater risk of developing the disease, while the risk is more than four times higher for lymphoid leukemia, the newspaper reported. They had twice the threat of developing multiple myeloma as well as cancers of the breast, lung, kidney, pancreas, ovary, and esophagus.

The research, which involved 27 different cancers, found that distant cousins face an increased threat of some forms of the disease, according to The Guardian account.

Cancers of the stomach, lung, and colon were also seen more frequently in the partners of patients, confirming that environmental factors -- smoking, diet, or exercise -- can also increase the odds.

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Ford Recalls SUVs for Second Time

Ford Motor Co. announced Tuesday that it is recalling one of its sport utility vehicles for the second time this month.

The automaker said it is recalling 262,113 Escape SUVs to repair a defect in the rear gate, Bloomberg News reported.

This recall covers 2001 through 2005 models whose rear lift gate may fly open during a crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a posting on its Web site.

Ford has no reports of accidents or injuries linked to the defect, which will be fixed by replacing a part in the rear lift gate, a company spokeswoman told Bloomberg News.

On Dec. 11, Ford recalled 474,000 Escape SUVs because of a faulty cable that can cause the engine to race. No accidents were reported as a result of that fault, either.

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Officials Worry About Disease After Undersea Quake

International aid organizations have begun an intense effort to send supplies and relief workers to the nine Asian countries most affected by Sunday's huge underwater earthquake and subsequent tidal waves known as tsunamis. In addition to those items needed for immediate victim relief, a major concern is preventing disease outbreaks caused by the remnants of the tidal waves and the bodies that have remain unclaimed.

"The longer-term effects may be as devastating as the tidal wave or the tsunami itself," CNN quotes the U.N.'s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, as saying. "Many more people are now affected by polluted drinking water. We could have epidemics within a few days unless we get health systems up and running."

On its Web site, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a massive, internationally coordinated effort to bring relief as quickly as possible. Of major concern was the possible lack of hospitals and clinics in the most devastated areas, the WHO statement said.

"Besides the need for mass management of casualties in hospitals, WHO foresees the urgent need for reactivation and boosting the capacities of local systems for health-care delivery," the statement said. "At short term, in a few days, additional threats to human life can be expected to arise from contaminated water sources."

The Associated Press quoted Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam, warning that without swift action, more people could die in the aftermath. "The flood waters will have contaminated drinking water and food will be scarce," she said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, an estimated 44,000 people were reported killed, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India being the hardest hit. Scores of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, China, and Japan have begun relief efforts, including sending workers to the affected areas.

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Study Faults Claims of Diet Plans

While the old maxim that every little bit helps rings true -- especially when it comes to weight loss -- a scientific review of commercial diet plans shows that the results are indeed just a little bit positive.

The Jan. 4 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that there wasn't enough scientific evidence to justify many of the claims the top diet plans make about losing weight and keeping it off.

A review of 10 of the nation's most popular weight-loss programs found that only Weight Watchers had the type of evidence needed that its program worked, according to the Associated Press. But for those hoping to lose 20 or 30 pounds, the Weight Watchers documentation supported much less -- participants lost an average of about 10 pounds in six months, and two years later kept off about half of it.

According to the wire service, the reviewers didn't want their findings to be perceived as an attack on commercial diet programs. "There are no data on weight loss when you go to a health club, either," Thomas Wadden, the study's co-author, told the AP. We hope that doctors and patients will use this information to make more informed decisions."

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