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Health Highlights: Dec. 8, 2004

Dick Clark Recovering From Stroke Scientists Develop Faster Bird Flu Test Two Anticonvulsant Drugs Raise Birth Defect Risk Unmarried Same-Sex Couples Lose Health Benefits in Mass. Breast Cancer Drug Bests Tamoxifen at Stopping Relapse Asthma Vaccine Seems to Reverse Lung Damage

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

Dick Clark Recovering From Stroke

Music and television impresario Dick Clark is in a Los Angeles-area hospital after suffering a mild stroke this week.

Clark, host of the long-running series American Bandstand, said he "should be back in the swing of things before too long," according to a statement quoted by Los Angeles radio station KABC.

His spokesman, Paul Shefrin, offered few details, including which hospital treated him, but said that there's no cause for alarm, KABC reported. In fact, he hopes to recuperate in time to once again host New Year's Rockin' Eve 2005, his 33rd year at the helm of that broadcast.

"The doctors tell me I should be back in the swing of things before too long, so I'm hopeful to be able to make it to Times Square to help lead the country in ringing in the new year," Clark said in the statement.

"The World's Oldest Teenager," who turned 75 on Nov. 30, is also the successful producer (and onetime host) of game shows, awards programs, and made-for-TV movies. He disclosed last year that he suffered from diabetes.

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Scientists Develop Faster Bird Flu Test

Scientists in Hong Kong say they've developed a test that's able to detect bird flu in people within one or two hours instead of the week or more required to get results from previous kinds of tests.

This new test identifies antigens and antibodies that the human body produces in response to infection by the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, the Associated Press reported. Previous tests required isolating and directly examining the virus.

Not only is this new test faster, it will be cheaper than the old tests, said one of the researchers.

By providing early diagnoses of cases, the new test could prove crucial in controlling outbreaks of bird flu.

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Two Anticonvulsant Drugs Raise Birth Defect Risk

Two anticonvulsant drugs -- phenobarbital and valproic acid -- that are widely used to treat people with epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and migraines increase the risk of major birth defects by up to fivefold, according to a new analysis of the drugs.

This is the first time the risk has been quantified, although both drugs do carry warnings that they shouldn't be taken by pregnant women, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The risk analysis was conducted using preliminary data from a North American registry of about 4,000 pregnant women taking the drugs. The results showed major birth defects in 10.7 percent of infants born to women taking valproic acid, compared to a rate of about 6.5 percent among women taking phenobarbital, and 2 percent in the general population.

Among the major birth defects noted in the analysis were cleft palate, heart problems, and kidney and skeletal defects, the Times reported.

But researchers said women shouldn't suddenly top taking the drugs, because that could trigger seizures. They should instead talk to their doctors, who can gradually move them over to a safer anticonvulsant drug.

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Unmarried Same-Sex Couples Lose Health Benefits in Mass.

Health benefits for unmarried gay and lesbian couples are being dropped by many large employers in Massachusetts.

The companies say they're making the changes in the name of fairness. Seven months ago, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. The businesses say that if gays and lesbians can now be legally married, then they should no longer be entitled to special health benefits not available to unmarried, opposite-sex couples.

"We're saying if you're a same-sex domestic partner, you now have the same option heterosexuals have, so we have to apply the same rules to you," Larry Emerson, vice president of human resources for Baystate Health System, told the Boston Globe.

Other large employers that are dropping or phasing out health benefits for unmarried same-sex couples include Raytheon Co., Northeastern University, Emerson College, and IBM Corp.

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Breast Cancer Drug Bests Tamoxifen at Stopping Relapse

The newer breast cancer drug Arimidex clearly outperforms tamoxifen at preventing the disease from returning, an international study finds.

Arimidex (anastrozole), made by AstraZeneca, appeared to prevent relapse in up to 80 percent of postmenopausal cases, vs. the 50 percent normally credited to tamoxifen, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

"[Arimidex] is a better drug," said University of Texas researcher Dr. Aman Buzdar, who led the U.S. portion of the five-year study, which involved 2,000 American women and about 7,300 more from 20 other countries. The study, published in the online edition of The Lancet, was funded by AstraZeneca.

Tamoxifen, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration some three decades ago, stifles the tumor-promoting properties of the female hormone estrogen. Arimidex, among a new class of drugs called aromatase inhibitors, prevents estrogen from being made in the first place, the AP reported.

Experts both in and outside the study cautioned that the research hadn't been conducted long enough to determine if Arimidex improved users' overall survival, the wire service reported. Since study participants had very early cancers and had among the best prognoses, it wasn't possible to compare survival statistics among users of the newer drug vs. the older standard. That, the experts said, would take longer than five years.

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Asthma Vaccine Seems to Reverse Lung Damage

A promising new asthma vaccine that uses genetically engineered bacteria has been shown in animal studies to stop the disease in its tracks and actually reverse asthmatic lung damage, according to results of a California study reported Wednesday by the Chicago Tribune.

Approved asthma remedies only control the disease's symptoms. The new inoculation, still in its developmental stages, is the first to allow healing, the newspaper said.

The vaccine, dubbed ISS by its developers at the University of California at Davis, stimulates the body's own immune system response against asthma. Early trials involving humans show it also provides significant relief for people with hay fever, the Tribune reported.

In tests involving monkeys and mice, ISS caused the body to recognize the modified bacterial DNA as foreign and triggered an immune system response involved in fighting infections. The process also appeared to steer the immune system away from its out-of-control responses to allergic reactions that trigger asthma and hay fever, the newspaper explained.

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