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Health Highlights: Feb. 19, 2004

Thailand: Bird Flu May Have Jumped to Domestic Pets FDA Gives Flu Vaccine Annual Makeover Pfizer Cuts Supplies to Canadian Drug Firms Low-Dose Nicotine Patches Prove Effective New Treatment for Enlarged Prostate Approved Man Becomes Human Piggy Bank

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

Thailand: Bird Flu May Have Jumped to Domestic Pets

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu sweeping Asia may have jumped from chickens to a domestic house cat in Thailand, the Associated Press reports. If confirmed, the discovery could significantly raise the risk of acquiring the disease among people, experts say.

The World Health Organization says it's investigating the report provided by an animal hospital in Bangkok. The cat's owner told the hospital that the feline had dined on the carcasses of dead chickens. "If it's true, it's very dangerous because pets are very close to humans," a WHO viral expert tells the wire service.

Separately, Thailand's government says it's investigating whether 196 roaming cattle that were discovered dead in early February may have been infected with bird flu, the AP reports.

In Canada, meanwhile, the country's Food Inspection Agency says it's confirmed a case of a lower-risk strain of bird flu on a chicken farm in British Columbia, the Globe and Mail newspaper reports. The milder H7 strain had been detected previously in the American states of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


FDA Gives Flu Vaccine Annual Makeover

The Fujian strain of human flu that's been responsible for much of the world's flu-related misery this year will be added to next year's inoculation, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel decided Thursday.

The formula is changed annually well in advance of the upcoming season, to give manufacturers time to produce the vaccine. This year's chief menace, A-Fujian, will be one of three strains represented in next season's version. A-Fujian was not included in this year's inoculation since its predominance was discovered after the vaccine had already been produced.

Despite the omission and an early start, this year's flu season hasn't been especially severe so far, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells the wire service. The AP likened the death and infection tolls to 1999, the last time a particularly strong version of flu was dominant.


Pfizer Cuts Supplies to Canadian Drug Firms

The world's largest prescription drug producer, Pfizer, says it has cut supplies to some Canadian firms that funnel medications across the border to the United States, the Washington Post reports.

The company sent a letter Feb. 12 to seven mail-order pharmacies that cater to Americans seeking the Canadian drugs, which can cost 30 percent to 75 percent less than the U.S. equivalents, the newspaper says.

Officially, a Pfizer spokesman says the moves are being made to prevent shortages in Canada, according to the Post. But the actions are widely viewed as part of an escalating battle between the American pharmaceutical industry and U.S. consumers looking for the Canadian bargains.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration insists that since it can't regulate Canadian imports, the drugs might be improperly labeled, bogus, or even unsafe. But for many months, several state governments have been pursuing Canadian supplies for state workers and retirees -- a move they say will save them millions.


Low-Dose Nicotine Patches Prove Effective

Low-dose nicotine patches appear as effective as higher-dose versions in satisfying cravings after users stop smoking, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University report.

They say their findings raise questions about the common practice of beginning smoking cessation programs with higher-dose patches and gradually switching to lower-dose versions. This may expose smokers to unnecessarily high levels of nicotine without any added benefit, they suggest in a prepared statement.

Lead author Thomas Eissenberg and his colleagues studied 66 smokers from ages 18 to 55 who said they had smoked at least 15 "king size" cigarettes each day for at least two years. When they compared craving levels among users of higher-dose patches with low-dose versions, they were virtually the same, the researchers say.

Their ongoing study is funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.


New Treatment for Enlarged Prostate Approved

Celsion Corp.'s Prolieve Thermodilation system won FDA approval Thursday to treat enlarged prostate, medically known as Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH).

The in-office device combines heat and urethral dilation and usually provides significant symptom improvement in two weeks, the company says in a prepared statement. A one-year, 14-center clinical trial found that men using Prolieve reported better symptom improvement after three months than those who had used a frequently prescribed BHP drug, Proscar, the statement adds.

BHP affects an estimated 9 million men in the United States and more than 26 million men worldwide, the company says. The disorder, whose risk increases with age, affects about 90 percent of all men over age 75 at some point in their lives, Celsion says.


Man Becomes Human Piggy Bank

At first, it didn't sound like anything out of the ordinary when a man entered an emergency room in France complaining of stomach pain.

But doctors' jaws dropped when an X-ray revealed that the 62-year-old man had swallowed some 350 coins, according to a case history of the 2002 incident reported in the Feb. 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

According to the Associated Press, the man was diagnosed with a rare condition called pica -- a compulsion to eat things that normally don't qualify as food. In most cases, the objects are small enough to pass by themselves. But the 12-pound mass that had gathered in this man's stomach had collected over a decade.

Five days after his arrival, doctors surgically removed the contents of his badly damaged stomach. The man died 12 days later from complications.

Copyright, New England Journal of Medicine, 2004
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