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Health Highlights: Jan. 4, 2005

Documents Detail Problems With Prozac Logistical Problems Hinder Tsunami Relief Effort Common Painkillers Carry Risk of Intestinal Damage: Study U.S.-Funded Ugandan AIDS Drug Study Endangered Lives: Report Stem Cells Used to Treat Parkinson's in Monkeys

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

Documents Detail Problems With Prozac

Internal documents -- some dating back to 1988 -- from the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co. found that patients taking Prozac were attempting suicide at a far higher rate than were patients using any of four other commonly used antidepressants, a new report says.

CNN reported that suicide attempts accounted for 3.7 percent of the 14,200 adverse events reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Another 2.3 percent of events concerned psychotic depression while on the drug, more than twice the next-highest rate of patients using any of the other antidepressants, CNN reported.

CNN said it obtained copies of the Prozac documents, which had been missing for a decade, from the office of U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who has sought tighter FDA regulations on drug safety. The documents' existence was reported Saturday in the British Medical Journal, which had also received copies and turned them over to the FDA. They suggest that Lilly was aware of the problems as far back as 1988.

About 1.6 percent of those events were regarded as "hostile" events, CNN reported, while 0.8 percent of patients caused an intentional injury -- eight times higher than the rate reported with other antidepressants.

Lilly officials on Tuesday acknowledged the documents belonged to them and said the numbers in the documents represented "adverse effects" reported to the FDA, not clinical trial results.

"We did not believe this data, for a number of reasons, were terribly useful or informative in terms of suggesting anything about a causal link between the drug and the adverse effects being reported," Dr. Charles Beasley of Lilly told CNN.


Logistical Problems Hinder Tsunami Relief Effort

A relief plane hit a herd of cows at the tsunami-battered island of Sumatra on Tuesday, closing the main airport for hours and illustrating the obstacles that are preventing supplies of food, water, and medicine from reaching victims sooner.

While United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland praised the world's nations for their response to the worst natural disaster in recent history, he called the massive relief effort "a logistical nightmare."

"Tens of thousands of people [still] have received no relief" from last week's earthquake-spawned tidal waves that struck southern Asia and Africa, Egeland said in an interview on NBC's Today show. At least 139,000 people are confirmed dead, the Associated Press reported, and relief workers expect the toll from the Dec. 26 disaster to soar by tens of thousands more as they make their way to hard-to-reach villages on Sumatra's western coast.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, visiting Thailand, said as many as 5,000 Americans were unaccounted for, in addition to the 15 confirmed dead. Powell and other representatives of the world's largest donor nations are scheduled to meet in Indonesia on Thursday to continue planning the unprecedented $2 billion relief operation, the AP said. They also plan to discuss installation of a tsunami warning system for Indian Ocean nations.

A tiny bright spot among the devastation was Tuesday's discovery of an Indonesian man found floating several miles offshore among tree branches and debris, the AP reported. He had been swept off the coast by the massive wave and had survived more than a week on the high seas.


Common Painkillers Carry Risk of Intestinal Damage: Study

Common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen may carry a greater risk of intestinal damage than previously believed, according to a study by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The study found small-intestine damage in more than 70 percent of 21 people who took NSAIDs for more than three months. Similar damage was found in just two of 20 patients in a control group who took an unrelated painkiller or no painkiller drugs.

Prior to this study, it was believed there was a low risk of gut problems among people taking NSAIDs, the researchers said.

The study appears in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Responding to the study, Dr. Alastair Forbes, a gastroenterologist at St. Mark's Hospital in London, England, said most people with NSAID-related gut damage wouldn't notice any significant symptoms.

"We should continue to be wary of these drugs, and what this study tells us is that we should not be giving them out like Smarties, or encouraging people to use them over-the-counter without consulting their doctor," Forbes told BBC News Online.

The study comes on the heels of recent research that found that another class of painkillers called COX-2 inhibitors may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. One COX-2 inhibitor, Vioxx, was taken off the market in September.


U.S.-Funded Ugandan AIDS Drug Study Endangered Lives: Report

Through negligent and careless research procedures, U.S. health officials endangered the lives of hundreds of people taking part in a Uganda-based study of the AIDS drug nevirapine, according to a U.S. government whistleblower.

Officials at the U.S. National Institutes of Health ignored safety concerns about the drug during the U.S.-funded study, Dr. Jonathon Fishbein charged Tuesday. The drug was being used to protect babies from HIV infection during birth, the Associated Press reported.

This disregard for safety problems with the drug resulted in serious and sometimes deadly consequences for people taking part in the study, Fishbein told a panel of scientists from the independent Institute of Medicine.

Fishbein is one of several NIH employees who have raised concerns about the study. He's currently fighting an NIH decision to fire him, the AP reported.

NIH officials concede that the Uganda study did not meet required U.S. standards. But they counter that the drug has saved hundreds of thousands of African babies, the news service said.


Stem Cells Used to Treat Parkinson's in Monkeys

Stem cell transplants have been used to successfully treat monkeys with a simulated form of Parkinson's disease.

This is the first time that stem cell transplants have been successful in monkeys with the disease. The Japanese scientists who conducted the research say it may pave the way for using stem cells to treat humans with Parkinson's, Agence France-Presse reported.

"First we have to confirm the effectiveness will last long. Once we can confirm the safety of the therapy, we want the method to be applied to humans. We hope clinical applications on humans will be available in about five years," chief researcher Dr. Nobuo Hashimoto of Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine told AFP.

He and his colleagues extracted embryonic stem cells capable of releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine and transplanted them into adult monkeys with drug-induced symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease in humans. Three months after the transplant, the monkeys' hand trembling and other Parkinson's-like symptoms were less severe.

The research was published Tuesday online in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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