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Health Highlights: Dec. 9, 2004

Another Painkiller to Carry Heart Risk Warning Poverty, War, HIV Afflict Half of World's Kids Video Games Help Kids Relax Before Surgery Less Drastic Surgery Accurately Spots Spread of Breast Cancer Britain Extends Closure of Flu Vaccine Plant Study Says Smoking May Hinder Brain Function

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

Another Painkiller to Carry Heart Risk Warning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it is adding new warnings on the label of the prescription painkiller Bextra, which is in the same class of drugs as the now-withdrawn Vioxx.

Two serious side effects of the drug, made by Pfizer, Inc., have surfaced in recent studies, the FDA says. The first is "patients taking Bextra have reported serious, potentially fatal skin reactions... most likely to occur in the first 2 weeks of treatment, but can occur any time during therapy. In a few cases, these reactions have resulted in death."

The second warning is for patients who have undergone coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. A recent Pfizer study of 1,500 patients found an increased risk of having a heart attack or a blood clot in the leg or lung occurred with patients who were taking Bextra

Bextra, like Vioxx and Celebrex, belongs to a class of stomach-friendly painkillers called cox-2 inhibitors. In September, Merck & Co., Inc., announced that it was removing Vioxx from the market because the company's studies showed a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Last month, a key FDA drug reviewer testified at a U.S. Senate hearing that the safety of five other FDA-approved drugs, including Bextra, should be reviewed. The agency plans to convene a meeting of experts to discuss these drugs in February.

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Poverty, War, HIV Afflict Half of World's Kids

Poverty, war, and HIV/AIDS plague the lives of more than a billion children -- half the world's population of youngsters -- and denies them a healthy and protected upbringing, says UNICEF's annual report released Thursday.

The report said that some of the blame for that misery falls on governments that have failed to carry out promised economic and human rights reforms, Agence France-Presse reported.

"When half the world's children are growing up hungry and unhealthy, when schools have become targets and whole villages are being emptied by AIDS, we've failed to deliver on the promise of childhood," UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said at the report's London release.

"Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood," Bellamy said.

The report said that about 640 million children lack adequate shelter, and 400 million don't have access to safe water. It also said that 270 million children have no health care, and 140 million -- mostly girls -- have never attended school, AFP reported.

At least 700 million children suffer more than one kind of severe deprivation.

Children account for nearly half the 3.6 million people killed in wars since 1990, the report said.

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Video Games Help Kids Relax Before Surgery

Playing video games in the operating room seems to be more effective in helping children relax before surgery than tranquilizers or holding their mother's hand, according to a U.S. study.

The study found that letting children play video games for a few minutes eased their anxiety until the anesthesia put them to sleep.

"We find that the children are just so happy with the Game Boy that they actually do forget where they are," researcher Dr. Anu Patel, an anesthesiologist at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., told the Associated Press.

Video games could offer an alternative for the many parents who don't want their children to be given tranquilizers.

Patel studied 78 children, 4 to 12 years old. The findings will be presented Saturday at a medical conference.

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Less Drastic Surgery Accurately Spots Spread of Breast Cancer

A reliable assessment of whether breast cancer has spread and requires aggressive treatment can be accomplished by removing just one to three lymph nodes from an arm, instead of the current standard approach of removing 10 to 20 lymph nodes, says a large U.S. study.

This less severe surgery, which is 97 percent accurate in detecting whether cancer has spread beyond the breast, reduces the risk that a woman will suffer lifelong motion problems and reduced feeling in the shoulder and arm, the Associated Press reported.

The findings were presented Thursday at a breast cancer conference in Texas.

"There is a high degree of accuracy here. This offers an option for the majority of women," researcher Dr. Thomas Julian, a breast cancer surgeon at Drexel University College of Medicine and Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, told the AP.

Along with potential motion problems, women who have the more severe surgery also face increased risk of infection after losing about a third of the lymph nodes that drain fluid from the arm.

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Britain Extends Closure of Flu Vaccine Plant

The British government has extended by three months the ban on production of flu vaccine at Chiron Corp's Liverpool plant, CNN reported Thursday. The announcement could impact production of next year's vaccine supply.

The original ban, announced in October due to contamination problems, pulled from the market some 48 million doses that had been destined for the United States. That represented nearly half of the 100 million U.S. doses ordered for this year's flu season, leading to vaccine shortages nationwide.

British government officials said the extension was not due to newly identified issues, but was imposed to give Chiron more time to correct serious contamination problems, CNN reported.

The ban, which had been set to expire on Jan. 3, now extends to the beginning of April. On its Web site, Chiron has said that production for next year's flu vaccine must begin by early spring 2005 in order to ensure timely delivery, CNN said.

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Study Says Smoking May Hinder Brain Function

Here's yet another reason not to smoke: longtime smokers appear to perform significantly worse in tests of cognitive brain function, suggesting that the habit may affect a person's IQ, British researchers say.

Some 465 people were tested in 1947, when they were 11 years old, and again when they reached age 64, according to a BBC News Online account of the study. Tests of nonverbal reasoning, memory, and learning showed a greater decline among those who smoked than nonsmokers, the researchers at the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh found.

Dr. Lawrence Whalley of the University of Aberdeen said the detrimental effects of smoking on the heart and lungs could wind up affecting brain cells. "Aging neurons are very sensitive to oxidative damage," he told the network.

Results of the research are published in the journals New Scientist and Addictive Behaviors.

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