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Health Highlights: July 3, 2005

Internal Review Takes AIDS Agency to Task Cold Medicines to Get New Formula Chinese Supplement a Risk to Diabetics: FDA Enclosed Bed Systems Pose Suffocation Threat Bill Would Offer Coverage for Anti-Anxiety Drugs

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

Internal Review Takes AIDS Agency to Task

An internal review has painted a disturbing picture of the federal government's AIDS research agency, one where internal feuding, sexually explicit language and inappropriate conduct has hampered efforts to fight the disease in this country, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

The report confirms much of what has been alleged by whistle-blower Jonathan Fishbein concerning the agency's research division and its senior managers, the wire service added.

The situation has been "rife for too long," claimed the report, which was obtained by the AP.

Meanwhile, Fishbein was formally fired by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Friday, despite the objections of several members of Congress. He was originally hired in 2003 to improve the safety of AIDS research within the agency.

"Retaliation against an employee for reporting misconduct or voicing concerns is unacceptable, illegal and violates the Whistleblower Protection Act," Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) wrote in a letter to the NIH late last week, according to the AP.

NIH officials refused to comment on either the firing or any Congressional protest, citing personnel privacy.

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Cold Medicines to Get New Formula

The makers of over-the-counter cold medicines, bowing to pressure from government officials, are reformulating their products to prevent criminals from turning the key ingredient into illegal methamphetamine, the Associated Press reported Saturday.

"This is the direction we're moving," Elizabeth Assey, spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, told the AP.

Pseudoephedrine is often the main ingredient in these popular medications, but criminals can extract it and turn it into methamphetamine by boiling down the cold medicine, and adding toxic chemicals to what is left.

At least a dozen states have already restricted access to such medications in an effort to stop the illegal production of methamphetamine, with some success, but law enforcement officials have said changing the formulas would curb the problem even further.

So, Pfizer Inc., which makes Sudafed and other similar products, has announced it will put a different ingredient, phenylephrine, in up to half of those medicines by January. McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharmaceuticals, Wyeth and Schering-Plough Inc. are considering similar pledges. And Boehringer-Ingelheim of Germany, the world's largest producer of phenylephrine, said it could boost production to the point where it could replace the entire U.S. supply of pseudoephedrine by 2006, the AP reported.

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Chinese Supplement a Risk to Diabetics: FDA

The FDA is warning consumers not to take a Chinese dietary supplement that contains a diabetes drug that could cause life-threatening reactions in certain people.

Liqiang 4 Dietary Supplement Capsules contain glyburide, a drug that is used to lower blood sugar, and is safe when used as labeled in FDA-approved medications. People who have low blood sugar or those with diabetes can receive dangerously high amounts of glyburide by consuming Liqiang 4. Consumers should immediately stop using these products and seek medical attention, especially if they are being treated with diabetes drugs or have symptoms of fatigue, excessive hunger, profuse sweating, or numbness of the extremities, the FDA said Friday.

The product is sold as part of a shrink-wrapped two bottle set. One of the 90 capsule bottles is labeled Liqiang 4 Dietary Supplement Capsules, the other bottle is promoted as a "bonus pack" of Liqiang 1. The FDA said it is evaluating Liquang 1 and other versions of this product to determine their composition and safety.

The product is manufactured by Liqiang Research Institute, China, and marketed throughout the United States in herbal stores and through mail order by Bugle International of Northridge, Calif., the agency said.

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Enclosed Bed Systems Pose Suffocation Threat

Vail Products Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, is recalling about 5,000 enclosed or canopied bed systems -- models 500, 1000 and 2000 -- used by hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions because the beds pose an entrapment and suffocation hazard to patients.

So far, there have been 30 reported entrapments, resulting in at least eight deaths, the FDA said. Patients using these beds can become trapped between the side rail and mattress, or between the canopy and mattress.

The beds are used as an alternative to physical or drug restraint to reduce falls or other injuries among patients with cognitive impairment, unpredictable behavior, spasms, seizures, and other disorders, the FDA said.

Hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions should stop using these beds and transfer patients to alternative bed systems, the FDA said. Consumers using these beds at home should consult with their doctors about other options.

Under this recall, Vail Products is not retrieving or replacing the bed systems. Instead, the company is offering new warning labels and instruction manuals to those who have no choice but to continue using the beds. Vail said it mailed the manuals and labels to customers on June 23 and 24, the FDA said.

There's more information in this FDA Public Health Notification.

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Bill Would Offer Coverage for Anti-Anxiety Drugs

Federal lawmakers said Friday that they would seek to extend Medicare's prescription drug benefit to include a class of drugs commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizures.

The benefit, which begins Jan. 1, currently excludes coverage of the category of drugs called benzodiazepines. But mental health experts say the drugs are sometimes the most effective therapy for patients, and that a sudden switch to other drugs could be life-threatening, according to the Associated Press.

Xanax, Valium and Ativan are among the most widely used benzodiazepines.

"This glitch in the Medicare law threatens the health of our beneficiaries," said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., who is sponsoring the bill to strike the exclusion, along with Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. "The administration recognizes the problem, but it does not have the authority to fix it. Congress does, and I hope that we can pass this bill soon."

Last week, the AP reported that the new Medicare rules would force elderly and disabled Medicare recipients to find other coverage to pay for benzodiazepines or change to other medications.

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