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Health Highlights: Feb. 21, 2004

Mayors Urge Feds to Help on Canada Drug Imports Drug Company Warns on Anti-Psychotic for Elderly Experimental Lung Cancer Vaccine Shows Promise Asian Bird Flu Confirmed in Domestic Cats Teen Pregnancy, Abortion Rates Drop in U.S.

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

Mayors Urge Feds to Help on Canada Drug Imports

Twelve mayors from four New England states are urging federal officials to structure a safer way to import prescription drugs from Canada.

Saying consumer safety measures would smooth the way for legal cross-border bulk purchases of medication, the mayors signed a letter Friday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson asking for federal action to certify the safety of drugs bought from Canadian suppliers.

"Certification, with the introduction of new standards, will reduce the harm that Americans are currently exposed to when they purchase drugs over the Internet and through other unmanaged sources," the letter said according to the Associated Press.

Safety has been one of the federal government's main objections to purchasing drugs from Canada. Such purchases are currently illegal but have been gaining in popularity as cash-strapped U.S. cities and states look for ways to save money.

Boston's mayor has met with officials from the Food and Drug Administration about the city's pilot program to give about 11,000 city employees and retirees the option of filling prescriptions by mail from Canadian suppliers. Despite FDA objections, the mayor says he intends to move forward with the plan on July 1 and expects the city to save about $1.5 million per year.

The mayor of Springfield, Mass., has already begun buying drugs from Canada. And Burlington, Vt., Mayor Peter Clavelle said his city's employees will be able to buy drugs from Canada starting March 1.

Earlier this week, the world's largest prescription drug producer, Pfizer, cut supplies to some Canadian firms that funnel lower-cost medications across the border to the United States.

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Drug Company Warns on Anti-Psychotic for Elderly

Eli Lilly and Co. is warning doctors and psychiatrists that elderly patients suffering from dementia face a higher risk of stroke if they use the company's top-selling drug, the anti-psychotic Zyprexa.

Lilly issued the warning, in a letter sent nationwide Jan. 15, based on findings from recent clinical trials of Zyprexa, Lilly spokesman Dan Collins told the Associated Press. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not require the warning, he added.

The Zyprexa patients, who account for about 2 percent of the drug's annual $4 billion in sales, were more likely to suffer a stroke than those taking a placebo in clinical trials that were conducted to see if the drug would benefit them, Collins said. The Zyprexa patients also had a higher risk of death from all causes than those using a placebo.

Zyprexa, introduced in 1996, is not approved for use in elderly patients with dementia, although some doctors do use the drug on a so-called "off-label" basis to help such patients get through episodes of dementia. Because of the test findings, Lilly will not seek FDA approval for Zyprexa to treat older patients with dementia, Collins said.

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Experimental Lung Cancer Vaccine Shows Promise

Scientists have developed an experimental vaccine that could be used to block the progress of lung cancer. A small study suggests it could delay the recurrence of tumors in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of the cancer.

Doctors called the research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, encouraging. Currently, treatment options for patients with this type of lung cancer are limited.

Scientists from the University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, who carried out the study, said this was the first time a vaccine had been shown to be effective against this type of cancer, according to a BBC report.

The researchers followed 43 patients -- 10 who had early-stage cancer and 33 who had advanced stage cancer. Surgeons removed their tumors and the patients were then injected with a vaccine that included cells from their tumor and a gene called CM-CSF, which changed the surface of the cells to help the body identify them as cancerous. The body's immune cells then began to recognize, attack and destroy the cancer cells in the lungs.

The patients were given an injection of the GVAX vaccine every two weeks for three months. A small number of patients were still free of cancer three years after they were vaccinated. In others, the vaccine appeared to delay the recurrence of cancer for several months.

The research, which was designed to look at the vaccine's safety, was funded in part by Cell Genesys, a pharmaceutical company that hopes to produce it.

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Asian Bird Flu Confirmed in Domestic Cats

Thai officials confirmed Friday that the deadly strain of bird flu sweeping Asia has made the jump to domestic house cats.

Three house cats that died from the disease in a province outside Bangkok are the first known domesticated animals to contract bird flu, the Associated Press reports. The World Health Organization, on its website Friday, says the cats were part of 15 in one household, 14 of which have died.

While calling the infection of cats an "unusual event," the WHO nevertheless says, "confirmation of infection in cats is not considered likely to enhance the present risks to human health. Nor is it considered likely to influence the future evolution of the outbreak in humans in any significant way."

The disease has killed 22 people in Vietnam and Thailand, while infecting birds in 10 Asian nations. So far, human contact with infected birds has been the only confirmed method of transmission to people.

In Canada, meanwhile, officials are grappling with this week's discovery of a milder strain of bird flu at a farm in British Columbia. As a result, Japan and Hong Kong have imposed temporary bans on chicken imports from Canada. The Canadian strain -- the same one detected last week in three U.S. states -- is thought to pose no danger to people.

And in Texas Friday, health authorities said a single case of the milder strain of bird flu turned up in a flock of 7,000 chickens near San Antonio but is unrelated to the varieties found in Delaware, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, the AP reports. The flock is expected to be destroyed over the weekend.

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Teen Pregnancy, Abortion Rates Drop in U.S.

Continuing a decade-long trend, U.S. teen pregnancy and abortion rates in 2000 show declines among all racial and ethnic groups and in every state, new data shows.

The national teen pregnancy rate declined by 2 percent from 1999 to 2000 and fell by 28 percent from its 1990 peak, according to data the Alan Guttmacher Institute compiled from the most recent figures available, The New York Times reports. The pregnancy rate among black teenagers dropped even more steeply, by 32 percent in the same period, but the abortion rate for that group rose, to 41.5 percent.

Nationwide, a third of pregnancies among 15- to 19-year-olds ended in abortion in 2000, down steadily since 1986, and the rate of abortions per 1,000 women in that age group declined to 24 per 1,000, from a high of 43.5 per 1,000 in the late 1980s. Teen pregnancy rates were highest in Nevada, at 113 per 1,000, and lowest in North Dakota, at 42 per 1,000, well below the national average of 83.6. New Jersey had the highest percentage of teen abortions, 60 percent, with New York at 58 percent. Kentucky and Utah had the lowest abortion rates, at 13 percent.

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