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Health Highlights: Feb. 26, 2004

First Cancer Drug That Cuts Off Blood Is OK'd Racial Disparity Seen in Asthma Rates, Morbidity Survey: Seniors Don't Know About Medicaid Drug Bill Most Health Workers Don't Get Flu Shots Watchdog Group Wants Acne Drug Pulled From Market Oral Sex Could Lead to Mouth Cancer: Study

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

First Cancer Drug That Cuts Off Blood Is OK'd

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved the first in a class of drugs whose aim is to treat disease by cutting off its nourishing blood supply.

The first drug out of the gate is Avastin, a bioengineered treatment for colorectal cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Avastin is what's called an angiogenesis inhibitor, and it works by preventing the formation of new blood vessels.

The approval culminates 34 years of research into this mode of attacking cancer and other diseases, and is vindication for Dr. Judah Folkman, a Harvard surgeon who first proposed the idea. The Boston Globe reports that the research has been on a "roller-coaster ride of promises and failures," and two years ago many experts nearly gave up on the approach.

A dozen other angiogenesis inhibitors are awaiting approval, and many more are in the final stages of testing. Researchers are taking aim at treating 35 diseases with this class of medicine. But Avastin's success "has certainly changed the thinking in the field," Folkman told the Globe. "It's sort of like Sputnik."

When given to patients along with traditional chemotherapy, Avastin extended their lives by about five months, according to the FDA. The drug is made by Genentech, Inc., of South San Francisco, Calif.

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Racial Disparity Seen in Asthma Rates, Morbidity

Asthma strikes harder and more often in blacks, American Indians, and people of multiple races than it does whites, according to a report released Thursday.

A survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 7.6 percent of whites reported in 2002 that they have the breathing disorder. The highest prevalence of asthma, 15.6 percent, was among non-Hispanics of multiple races, followed by non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaskan natives (11.6 percent), and blacks (9.3 percent).

Only 5 percent of Hispanics reported having asthma, but the disease forced 26 percent of them to visit an emergency room. The rate of urgent care visits was 37.2 percent for blacks and 25.8 percent for whites. Non-Hispanic people of multiple races were least likely to visit an emergency room (13.5 percent).

Some 16 million American adults suffer from asthma, according to the report in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Survey: Seniors Don't Know About Medicaid Drug Bill

Nearly seven of 10 seniors polled don't know that the Medicare prescription drug bill has been signed into law, a new Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds.

The legislation was signed by President Bush last Dec. 8. Some 41 percent of survey respondents didn't know whether the law had passed, and 27 percent thought it had been voted down. Despite these inconsistencies, 64 percent of seniors polled said they had been following the Medicare prescription drug debate "closely" or "very closely."

Even among people who said they were familiar with the debate, there was still confusion about just what the new Medicare law meant to them. Some 60 percent of senior respondents said they understood the legislation "not too well" or "not well at all."

The drug benefit doesn't take effect until 2006, but already 55 percent of seniors polled said they had an unfavorable impression of the measure. The telephone survey was conducted Feb. 5-8 of 237 adults ages 65 and older, the foundation says in a statement.

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Most Health Workers Don't Get Flu Shots

Just 36 percent of health-care workers in the United States are vaccinated for flu each year despite federal recommendations to the contrary, The New York Times reports of a leading health organization's findings.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) calls its conclusion "dismal" and is urging an advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend stepping up enforcement efforts. Unvaccinated workers pose a risk to people especially susceptible to flu, including seniors, young children, and people with immune system problems, the organization says.

The newspaper cites a flu outbreak at an unspecified intensive care unit for newborns, at which 19 infants were infected and one died. Only 15 percent of the staff had been immunized.

The CDC panel -- formally known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices -- is holding hearings in Atlanta to consider the possibility of recommending flu shots for all Americans. Currently, the shots are recommended for health workers at those at high risk -- a total of 185 million people, reports USA Today.

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Watchdog Group Wants Acne Drug Pulled From Market

A leading watchdog group is calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to remove Accutane from the market, citing what it calls birth defects and "life-threatening adverse effects" associated with the acne drug.

Public Citizen's Health Research Group says that Accutane should be prescribed "only under very limited and controlled conditions," according to testimony expected to be delivered Thursday before a panel of FDA experts.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the group, says in a statement that the drug is approved only to treat severe acne but is prescribed to many people whose acne is mild.

He told the panel that the drug causes birth defects such as malformations of the heart and brain, adding that 50 percent of babies born to mothers on Accutane are mentally disabled. Because of this rate, many women who become pregnant while taking the drug have abortions.

A program launched in 2002 by the FDA and Roche, the maker of Accutane, was aimed at reducing the number of pregnant women taking it. However, Wolfe said, the program hasn't worked.

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Oral Sex Could Lead to Mouth Cancer: Study

The risk is "tiny," in the words of New Scientist magazine, but an international research study concludes that oral sex could cause mouth cancer.

About one in 10,000 people develops mouth cancer each year, and more likely causes are smoking and drinking, the magazine points out. Scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) are not recommending any changes in behavior.

A particular strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV) -- a very common source of sexually transmitted infection -- has been linked to cancer of the cervix. The same HPV16 strain was found in most of the studied cases of oral cancer, according to the IARC researchers, based in Lyon, France.

The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, involved more than 3,400 participants. People with oral cancers containing the HPV16 strain were three times as likely to have had oral sex as oral cancer patients without the strain, the magazine says. And there was no statistical difference between men and women in how likely the virus was to be present in their cancers, according to the magazine's summary.

At any one time, about one-third of 25-year-old women in the United States are infected with HPV, New Scientist says. It is thought that about 10 percent of infections involve cancer-causing strains, and 95 percent of women will rid themselves of the infection within a year, the magazine adds.

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