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Health Highlights: June 15, 2005

Schiavo's Brain Was Atrophied, Autopsy Shows FDA Staff Back Race-Based Drug Experts Ponder How to Treat Chronic Insomnia Flu Vaccine Maker Expects Lower Output More Boys Born Than Girls: CDC Outpatients Shouldn't Get Heart Drug Natrecor: Expert Panel

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

Schiavo's Brain Was Atrophied, Autopsy Shows

Terri Schiavo's brain was about half the normal size when she died, and she did not suffer any trauma prior to her 1990 collapse, according to autopsy results released Wednesday in Florida.

Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin concluded that there was no evidence of strangulation or other trauma leading to the severely brain-damaged woman's collapse, the Associated Press reported. He also said she did not appear to have suffered a heart attack.

Thogmartin told reporters that Schiavo died from dehydration and that she would not have been able to eat or drink if she had been given food by mouth, as her parents had requested.

"Removal of her feeding tube would have resulted in her death whether she was fed or hydrated by mouth or not," he said.

The brain damage, he added, was "irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."

Schiavo's relatives were hoping that her autopsy results would shed some light on what led to her collapse and brain damage 15 years ago.

The 41-year-old Pinellas County woman, who most doctors said was in a persistent vegetative state, died March 31, nearly two weeks after the feeding tube keeping her alive was removed by a court order sought by her husband and guardian, Michael Schiavo.

Her death marked the end of a bitter and very public seven-year legal battle, reaching all the way to Congress, between her husband and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who desperately tried to keep her alive.

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FDA Staff Back Race-Based Drug

U.S. Food and Drug Administration staff gave their approval Wednesday to the nation's first race-based medicine, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. An FDA expert advisory panel was to consider the issue on Thursday.

Nitromed Inc.'s heart medication BiDil won the staff members' backing for use in black people. While blacks do have a higher rate of heart failure than whites, critics contend that the designation is a marketing ploy, since there is no scientific evidence that the medicine works any better in blacks compared to whites, the newspaper reported.

BiDil is a combination of two generic drugs that have been used for years to treat chest pain and high blood pressure. A study of 1,050 blacks with heart failure found the drug increased survival rates and reduced hospitalizations by about one-third, the newspaper said.

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Experts Ponder How to Treat Chronic Insomnia

The causes of chronic insomnia remain a mystery and too little research has been done to know how best to treat it, sleep experts said Wednesday at a National Institutes of Health forum in Washington, D.C.

There's little evidence that popular remedies including sleeping pills, over-the-counter allergy medications, and other medicines that trigger drowsiness actually work, the experts said. In fact, they could lead to dependence and other problems, the panelists added.

About one-third of adults complain of problems sleeping and about 10 percent have symptoms that characterize true insomnia, the Associated Press reported. The risks of getting insomnia appear to grow with age and the development of certain medical problems, including depression, arthritis and lung disease. Women, especially after menopause, are more likely to suffer from an inability to fall asleep than men, the wire service said.

The best treatment appears to be behavioral therapy aimed at reducing anxiety and promoting sleep. Newer drugs designed to be less habit-forming than older medications have only been studied for brief use, the sleep experts said, in recommending major new research into insomnia's causes and treatments, the AP reported.

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Flu Vaccine Maker Expects Lower Output

Chiron Corp., a major supplier of flu vaccine to the United States, announced Wednesday a significant cutback in its projected supply for the upcoming season.

Still reeling from a government-ordered shutdown last year of its British factory due to contamination problems, Chiron said it would be able to manufacture only 18 million to 26 million doses of its Fluvarin vaccine for the 2005-2006 season. Before last fall's six-month factory closure, the company had been expected to produce some 50 million doses for the U.S. market -- about half of the supply ordered by the United States.

To avoid a repeat of last year's widespread shortages that plagued the United States after the Chiron shutdown, the federal government is considering an application from global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to sell its vaccine. Other manufacturers permitted to sell flu vaccine in the United States are Sanofi-Aventis and MedImmune Inc.

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More Boys Born Than Girls: CDC

For the 63rd year in a row, the number of boys born in the United States outnumbered births of girls, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 94,232 more boys were born than girls. Since 1940, an average of 91,685 more boys have been born each year, the agency said. That amounts to a total of 5,776,130 more male babies than females over the 63-year period.

The agency said the more children a woman has, the more likely she is to give birth to an equal number of boys and girls.

Chinese and Filipino mothers were most likely to give birth to more boys than girls, while non-Hispanic black and American-Indian mothers were most likely to have an equal number of infants of both sexes, the CDC said.

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Outpatients Shouldn't Get Heart Drug Natrecor: Expert Panel

The intravenous heart-failure therapy Natrecor should not be given to outpatients and should only be reserved for seriously ill patients arriving at hospitals, a committee of cardiologists has recommended.

The panel of 10 cardiologists, in findings released Monday, also called for a large clinical trial to determine the safety of Natrecor and also recommended that an ongoing trial to evaluate the drug for outpatients be allowed to continue, The New York Times reported.

The committee also recommended that drug maker Johnson & Johnson immediately launch an education campaign to inform doctors about the committee's recommendations. The committee was convened by Johnson & Johnson following reports in two medical journals earlier this year that suggested that Natrecor, approved in 2001, increases the likelihood of death or worsens kidney function.

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