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Health Highlights: Jan. 30, 2004

Will FluMist Survive Another Flu Season? Vatican: Profiteering from AIDS Crisis 'Genocidal' China: More Poultry Infected With Bird FluBush Administration Nixes Wider Mad Cow Testing Medicare May Balk at Paying for Pricey Cancer Drugs Conjoined Twins Allowed to Die

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

Will FluMist Survive Another Flu Season?

The makers of FluMist, the first nasal vaccine against influenza, are deciding whether to pull it off the market because sales in its debut season were dreadful.

The Sun of Baltimore reports that the co-marketers of FluMist, MedImmune Inc. and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, will decide by March whether to proceed with sales next year.

"Everything is on the table, from us continuing to go forward together ... to perhaps both of us declaring defeat and getting out," MedImmune chief executive officer David Mott is quoted as saying.

The companies had high hopes for FluMist, launching a $25 million campaign in early fall. They gambled that patients would be willing to pay more for the drug -- it costs $46 a dose wholesale, three times as much as a standard shot -- if they could avoid an injection.

However, sales were far below expectations even though the flu season started early and there was a shortage of flu shots. The companies decided to donate doses to public health agencies.

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Vatican: Profiteering from AIDS Crisis 'Genocidal'

The Vatican has condemned pharmaceutical companies for making huge profits from AIDS drugs even though millions of people in Africa are dying of the disease because they can't afford the medications.

Agence France-Presse reports that the Vatican took drug companies to task for what it called a "genocidal action." Although the Holy See has called for action in the past, this is the first direct attack on drugmakers.

Citing what it called "a lack of social conscience," the Vatican said more public pressure is needed to force the companies to lower the price of their antiretroviral drugs so that 25 million Africans with the virus can take them, according to AFP.

"Today, at least 400 people die in Kenya every day because of AIDS. Yet in Europe and North America it is no longer a fatal disease, it is only a chronic disease," said Father Angelo D'Agostino, an American Jesuit priest who runs an AIDS orphanage in Nairobi. "Why the difference? It is the genocidal action of the drug cartels who refuse to make the drugs affordable in Africa even after they reported a $517 billion profit in 2002," AFP quotes him as saying.

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China: More Poultry Infected With Bird Flu

Chinese authorities said Friday that the bird flu virus that has killed at least 10 people in Asia had been identified in poultry in three provinces, possibly two more and perhaps the city of Shanghai.

Tests confirmed the H5N1 virus had been found in poultry in Hubei and Hunan provinces as well as the southern region of Guanxi. Outbreaks were also suspected in Anhui and Guangdong, the southern province where SARS first appeared, CNN reports.

Officials have began a mass slaughter of fowl, primarily chickens, which are believed to infect humans, the Xinhua news agency says.

Chinese officials, who were sharply criticized last year by world health officials for their failure to initially report the SARS outbreak, said the bird flu in Hubei and Hunan provinces appeared under control. Health officials of the world's most populous nation have reported their efforts to contain bird flu to the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and Hong Kong authorities, CNN reports.

To date, the bird flu virus has been reported in 10 Asian nations. But the only human deaths -- 10 so far -- have been reported in Vietnam and Thailand.

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Bush Administration Nixes Wider Mad Cow Testing

The Bush Administration says it has no plans to expand testing of cattle for mad cow disease, citing -- in the words of unnamed administration officials -- the "gargantuan" cost of testing the 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the United States, the McClatchy newspaper chain reports.

The administration says it will test 40,000 cattle for the disease in fiscal year 2005 -- the same as this past year. But the new budget will include $47 million more to bolster federal meat-inspection programs and fund a national animal identification system, according to the report published in Friday's Sacramento Bee.

Some Democrats and many consumer groups have called for expanded mad cow testing since a lone Holstein was diagnosed last month with the disease in Washington state. That would cost about $50 for each additional animal tested, the report says.

Administration critics say not every animal would need to be tested, just those over 30 months old that are more prone to the disease -- up to 4 million animals annually. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., notes that "in the first seven months of 2003, not a single cow was tested [for mad cow] in Washington state."

U.S. Agriculture Department officials aren't ruling out the possibility of expanding the testing program later if a team of international experts reviewing the current safeguards recommends doing so, the news report says.

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Medicare May Balk at Paying for Pricey Cancer Drugs

U.S. Medicare officials are close to a decision on whether to deny payment for unapproved uses of expensive cancer drugs, The New York Times reports.

Officials are initially looking at just four drugs -- for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or colorectal cancer. But if they decide to curb paying for unapproved uses of these drugs, their review may expand to other medications with similarly high price tags.

Once a drug has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, doctors may prescribe them for any purpose -- even those beyond conditions sanctioned by the FDA. If Medicare were to stop paying for these so-called "off-label" prescriptions, the cost savings could run into billions of dollars, the Times reports.

But groups representing cancer doctors and patients say they're concerned about limiting access to drugs that, although experimental, may represent a patient's only chance of survival, the report adds.

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Conjoined Twins Allowed to Die

Seven-month-old conjoined twins, removed from their respirators, have died at a San Antonio hospital after doctors told their parents there was little chance they could be saved, the Associated Press reports.

Dawn and Matt Smith made the decision to allow daughters Brynleigh and Victoria to die after doctors informed the parents the twins couldn't be separated and probably would never leave the hospital.

The girls had been hospitalized and on respirators since their birth on July 25. They were connected at the chest, face to face, with their arms curved around each other. The pair shared a heart, liver, diaphragm and portions of their intestines.

The parents have decided to donate the twins' organs to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a center for conjoined twins study, the AP reports.

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