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Health Highlights: Dec. 6, 2004

Prescription Drugs Price Rise Slows: Survey AMA Considering Backing Drug Imports British Regulators Urge Restricted Use of Anti-Depressant U.S. Says More Flu Shots on the Way Surgeon General Worried About Steroid Use Among Athletes Sickle Cell Trial Stopped Due to Stroke Danger

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

Prescription Drugs Price Rise Slows: Survey

Price increases for the 197 brand-name prescription drugs most widely used by older Americans slowed during the third quarter. Costs were up 0.5 percent, less than earlier in 2004 or during the same period last year, AARP said Monday.

The 0.5 percent rise still was faster than the general inflation rate for the July to September quarter, according to an Associated Press report on the survey.

AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for people older than 50, offered no explanation for the slowdown in quarterly price increases. However, it noted that the period coincided with the introduction of the Medicare drug discount card, when drug makers and insurers were eager to showcase its benefits, the AP said.

"We don't know if that was a factor or if other things were going on," said AARP's David Gross, an author of the quarterly report.

Prices rose 1.8 percent in the third quarter of 2003; the increase was 3.5 percent in the first three months of this year and 1 percent in the second quarter, the AP said.

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AMA Considering Backing Drug Imports

The American Medical Association is debating whether to support the importation of less expensive prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday.

The nation's largest physician group, representing some 250,000 doctors, has been asked to support pending federal legislation to make the practice legal. The Bush Administration, including the Food and Drug Administration, has vehemently opposed importing prescription drugs, saying they can't be regulated by the U.S. government and could be improperly labeled or even unsafe.

Several states, including Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have bucked the FDA policy and set up drug-import programs for state employees and other residents who wish to participate. Due to Canadian price controls, prescription drugs can be 20 percent to 80 percent cheaper than the U.S. equivalents.

Drug costs for Americans have been rising 10 percent to 15 percent for several years, the newspaper said.

An AMA vote on the matter could come as early as Tuesday, the last day of the organization's annual meeting in Atlanta, the Tribune reported.

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British Regulators Urge Restricted Use of Anti-Depressant

British drug regulators said Monday that doctors should limit use of the anti-depressant Efexor because of potential side effects that include irregular heart rhythms, the Associated Press reported.

The United Kingdom's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said the drug, marketed as Effexor in the United States, may cause withdrawal symptoms and have a higher rate of death from overdose than similar drugs, the news service said.

The regulators recommended that only specialists be allowed to prescribe the drug and that patients be carefully monitored. The drug should also not be prescribed to patients with heart problems, the agency said.

The drug's maker, Wyeth, said in a statement it would challenge the decision and urged the regulators to accept the company's previous recommendations for labeling, educational initiatives and new packaging to reduce the risk of suicide and overdose, the AP said.

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U.S. Says More Flu Shots on the Way

Federal health officials will unveil a plan later this week to purchase and distribute additional flu shots to offset the nation's vaccine shortage, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, speaking at the American Medical Association's annual winter meeting in Atlanta, said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson is expected to make the announcement, the Associated Press reported.

"We do have optimism additional doses can be purchased. We hope for an announcement later in the week from Secretary Thompson," Gerberding said.

Last month, Thompson said officials from the Food and Drug Administration had inspected potential vaccine supplies from foreign manufacturers that might be available on an "investigational basis." The vaccines were given that designation because they weren't developed under FDA guidelines, the AP said.

Gerberding added that, despite the flu season's slow start, health-care providers should not be lulled into a false sense of security. "A slow start doesn't necessarily reflect a slow season," she said. "The most common month of peak activity is February."

Bacterial contamination at a Chiron Corp. manufacturing facility in England eliminated nearly half of the anticipated 100 million flu vaccine doses for this season. The CDC has said 98 million people, including 9 million children, should get the vaccine.

On average, more than 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized each year due to the flu, and 36,000 die, according to the CDC.

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Surgeon General Worried About Steroids in Sports

U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says he's "greatly concerned" about steroid use among professional athletes, calling it a public health matter more than a moral or ethical issue.

Steroid abuse can lead to a host of health problems, including organ failure and cancer, according to the Associated Press.

"If youngsters are seeing their role models practicing this kind of behavior and it seems acceptable, then we need to do something about that because it is a health risk," he told the wire service Monday during an interview in Reno, Nev.

Steroid abuse among pro athletes has been making headlines since the San Francisco Chronicle last week said it had obtained federal grand jury testimony last December of baseball stars Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. Testifying in the case of a San Francisco Bay-area company accused of selling steroids, Giambi reportedly admitted taking the performance-enhancing substances, while Bonds reportedly said he didn't know that two products given to him by his personal trainer were steroids.

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Sickle Cell Trial Stopped Due to Stroke Danger

A study to see if some children with sickle cell anemia could stop blood transfusion therapy has been halted prematurely because two of the patients suffered strokes and others developed a high risk of stroke.

The National Institutes of Health issued a clinical alert Sunday urging doctors to continue using blood transfusions to reduce the risk of stroke among juvenile sickle cell patients, even though the treatment is not without risk, the Associated Press reported.

The study "showed that when transfusions were discontinued after a minimum of 30 months, a significant number of children reverted to high risk" of stroke, the alert said.

The $11 million, 25-site study, called STOP II, was funded by the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and was based at the Medical College of Georgia.

The study, begun in July 2000, was halted prematurely last month after 16 children with the disease developed narrowed arteries and other risk factors for strokes after they stopped receiving blood transfusions, the AP said. Two other children suffered strokes but are recovering, said Dr. Robert Adams, the study's principal investigator and professor of neurology at the Medical College of Georgia.

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