Health Highlights: Dec. 4, 2003

Two More Colorado Children Die of Flu Rat Stem Cells Used to Make Human-Type Jaw Joint Sleep Apnea Masks Recalled for Missing Component In Study, New Breast Cancer Drug Fares Better Bush Signs Act Requiring Child Drug Trials

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

Two More Colorado Children Die of Flu

A 2-year-old and a 4-year-old child from the Denver suburb of Thornton, Colo., are the latest fatalities in the state's growing flu epidemic, the Rocky Mountain News reports. State health officials added more than 1,600 confirmed cases to the burgeoning flu toll this week, bringing the total to 6,306.

The tally includes the deaths of five children, ranging in age from 21 months to 15 years. And the state Department of Public Health and Environment is investigating the death of a sixth child, 2 years old, to see if it is flu related, the newspaper reports. The state averages zero to two child deaths for the average flu season, health officials say.

A Mayo Clinic expert says this flu season could be the worst he's ever seen, not just for Colorado but for the nation as a whole, the Chicago Tribune reports. Dr. Greg Poland, Mayo's director of vaccine research, predicts as many as 70,000 Americans could die from flu-related complications this winter, almost double the typical national average of 36,000.

At least four Texans, including three children, have died from the flu, as have three elderly nursing home residents in Washington state. In New Mexico, three children died from flu complications during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone, the Tribune says.

Colorado officials, noting that the flu season normally doesn't peak for several more weeks, concede they have no way of predicting the severity or length of the current outbreak. Only Texas has had an outbreak that began earlier than Colorado's, which appears to have started Nov. 17, the Rocky Mountain News says.

Citing a run on local health clinics for vaccinations, some county departments report an expected shortage of available inoculations.

Colorado also holds the dubious distinction of topping the nation in cases of the flu-like West Nile virus this year. The latest state tally from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 2,477 cases of West Nile and 45 deaths.

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Rat Stem Cells Used to Make Human-Type Jaw Joint

University of Illinois researchers have converted rat stem cells to mimic the bone and cartilage that form a joint in the human jaw, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Though the procedure has been tested only in animals, it could someday form the basis for regeneration of joints in the human jaw, knee, and hip, its developers say.

The joint structure, called a condyle, was created using adult stem cells taken from rat bone marrow. Once induced to produce cartilage and bone material, the cells were shaped into a condyle using a mold of a jaw joint created from a human cadaver, the newspaper says.

The researchers warn that their technique is far from perfected and hasn't even been tested on people yet, the Sun-Times reports.

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Sleep Apnea Masks Recalled for Missing Component

The maker of a nasal mask used by people with sleep apnea is recalling certain lots of the devices, which lack a built-in port used to exhale carbon dioxide.

Respironics Inc. is recalling 5,293 of its ComfortGel prescription masks distributed from Sept. 5 through Sept. 15, according to a news release from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The masks are used to keep a patient's airway open during sleep to diminish apnea -- or awakening -- episodes. Without the exhaust port, a user could re-inhale air laden with carbon-dioxide instead of oxygen, the FDA says.

The company, which knows of no injuries caused by the defective masks, says it has attempted to contact anyone known to have received the product. Some 82 percent of the faulty masks have been returned, Respironics says.

For more information, contact the company at 1-800-345-6443.

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In Study, New Breast Cancer Drug Fares Better

New research that compared a newer type of treatment for breast cancer against the standard therapy tamoxifen finds the new drug fared better, The New York Times reports.

Postmenopausal women who switched to the drug Arimidex (generic: anastrozole) after taking the standard for two or three years had fewer recurrences of cancer than those who continued on tamoxifen for the recommended five years, the new study finds. Researchers reported the results Wednesday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

The newspaper cites a growing body of evidence that anastrozole and related drugs called aromatase inhibitors may work better in short stints after taking tamoxifen than continuing on tamoxifen alone. Tamoxifen, a standard treatment for more than 20 years, is now used as a post-cancer therapy by about 500,000 women, the Times says.

But the latest study results aren't definitive enough to encourage women to switch drugs, experts caution. They warn that the three-year study was relatively short and small -- involving 448 postmenopausal women with early breast cancer. Cancer recurred in 17 women among those who had switched to anastrozole, compared with 45 recurrences among those who continued on tamoxifen, the Times reports.

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Bush Signs Act Requiring Child Drug Trials

The United States government now has the authority to require drug companies to conduct pediatric studies on medicines that may be used by children.

Under the Pediatric Research Equity Act of 2003, signed Wednesday by President Bush, the Food and Drug Administration could require testing of medicine doses for children, even when the drug companies say they lack the financial resources to do so, the Associated Press reports.

At present, only a quarter of drugs on the market are tested and properly labeled for children, the AP reports. The new law is necessary, the FDA says, since children and adults react differently to various drugs. Without testing, there's a significant chance that children might be over- or under-medicated, the agency adds.

In 1988, the FDA instituted what it called the "pediatric rule" giving itself the authority to require pediatric trials on adult drugs. The new law became necessary, however, after last year's federal court ruling that the FDA lacked that authority without Congressional intervention.

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