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Health Highlights: Dec. 31, 2004

Tsunami Death Toll Tops 120,000 FDA Approves Leukemia Drug for Kids Multiple SIDS Deaths Not Foul Play, Study Finds Celebrex Prescriptions Falter in Wake of Heart Studies Canada Cow Tests Positive for Mad Cow Disease

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

Tsunami Death Toll Tops 120,000

The death toll from Sunday's catastrophic tsunami and earthquake topped 120,000 in 12 nations Friday, and international health officials estimated that three times as many people may be seriously injured.

In addition, United Nations officials say 5 million people lacked clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine.

As the scope of one of the worst natural disasters in history widened, health officials remain worried about survivors' risk of diseases spread by contaminated wells and reservoirs, human sewage, rotting animals, and overcrowding.

The most immediate threats probably stem from a range of diarrheal diseases like cholera and dysentery, especially where pure water fails to reach survivors quickly, the Associated Press reported. Other big worries include respiratory diseases, like measles and pneumonia, which could occur within about a week of the disaster. In a month or so, outbreaks are likely from food- or water-carried ailments, like salmonella and hepatitis.

Health experts say clean water -- along with water-purifying tablets and equipment -- are urgent priorities in the massive global relief effort that is now underway.

Several health specialists also appealed for more attention to mental health counseling, which tends to be overlooked in undeveloped areas.

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Multiple SIDS Deaths Not Foul Play, Study Finds

Mysterious deaths of more than one newborn in the same family are more likely to be the result of natural causes than infanticide, British researchers report.

In the most comprehensive attempt to examine the emotionally charged issue of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) , the researchers found that when more than one infant dies in the same family, the deaths are only rarely due to foul play, according to a Washington Post report.

The findings, published in the Jan. 1 issue of The Lancet, should help prevent families stricken by more than one baby's death from automatically being placed under a cloud of suspicion, the researchers said.

Suspicion was raised in recent years that some deaths blamed on SIDS may have been infanticide, after researchers found that some children who had been killed had their cause of death classified as SIDS. There have been a number of highly publicized cases in the United States and Britain of parents who killed their children and blamed the deaths on SIDS. As a result, medical examiners in both countries tend to assume that more than one death in a family is suspicious.

About 2,500 children die each year in the United States from SIDS, also known as crib death. The cause is unknown, though the number of deaths dropped in recent years because of a campaign to put babies to sleep on their backs.

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FDA Approves Leukemia Drug for Kids

The first new leukemia treatment in more than a decade approved specifically for use in children has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.

Clolar, also known as clofarabine, was approved for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, whose cancer is getting worse in spite of at least two rounds of chemotherapy, according to an Associated Press report.

Clolar was granted accelerated approval this week based on a clinical trial involving 49 children, says Michael Vasconcelles, vice president of clinical research for Genzyme Corp., the drug's manufacturer. In the trial, 20 percent of children went into remission, and another 10 percent had a significant drop in the number of cancer cells in their bone marrow. Seven were healthy enough to have a bone marrow transplant, the only hope for a cure at that stage of the disease.

The FDA didn't approve the drug use in treating another cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, because trial results weren't as positive, says Sharon Murphy, director of the Children's Cancer Research Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. She says additional studies are needed to confirm that Clolar really improves therapy.

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Celebrex Prescriptions Falter in Wake of Heart Studies

New prescriptions for the pain reliever Celebrex have fallen by nearly half since a government-led study linked the drug to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes two weeks ago.

Celebrex's share of new arthritis drug prescriptions sank to 7.9 percent for the week ended Dec. 24, down from 14.2 percent a week earlier, according to Verispan, a market research firm that gathers information from U.S. pharmacies.

The drop-off for the Pfizer Inc. drug was not unexpected, the Associated Press reported. Celebrex is a cox-2 inhibitor, the same class of drugs as Vioxx, the Merck & Co. pain reliever that was withdrawn from the market in September when a study found it doubled patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes. In October, Pfizer announced that two studies showed its other cox-2 inhibitor Bextra increased the risk of cardiovascular problems in coronary bypass operation patients. The trio of events has made doctors suspicious about prescribing the class.

At the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Pfizer has stop advertising Celebrex directly to consumers. But data from ImpactRx, a Mt. Laurel, N.J.-based firm that tracks pharmaceutical promotions to doctors, reveal that the company has intensified its sales calls to physicians.

Pfizer spokeswoman Mariann Caprino said the visits reflect the sales force's attempt to explain the data from the government study to doctors, the AP reported.

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Canada Cow Tests Positive for Mad Cow Disease

A 10-year-old dairy cow in Canada has tested positive for mad cow disease.

The disclosure, released by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) early Thursday, came just hours after the United States announced plans for reopening its border in March to nearly all Canadian exports of beef and live cattle. The border was closed 19 months ago when a single breeder cow in northern Alberta tested positive for the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a Canadian Press report said.

The CFIA released few details on the new suspect case, other than to say that the finding was not definitive, but that multiple screening tests have yielded positive results. No part of the animal entered the human food or animal feed systems, the agency said.

The CP reported that samples are currently being analyzed at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg. Results are expected in three to five days.

BSE is a chronic, degenerative disorder affecting the central nervous system of cattle. Since it was first diagnosed in Great Britain in 1986, there have been more than 180,000 cases.

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