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Health Highlights: June 16, 2005

FDA Advisors Sanction Race-Based Cardiac Drug Va. Woman Being Kept Alive to Save Fetus Nancy Reagan Hospitalized After Fall More Americans Seek Treatment for Mental Disorders Gov't. Foot-Dragging Slows Use of New HIV Test: Critics Indonesia Reports First Human Case of Bird Flu

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

FDA Advisors Sanction Race-Based Cardiac Drug

A panel of experts advising the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted Thursday to recommend approval of the first-ever drug targeted to a racial group.

The nine-member panel voted unanimously to recommend that the full agency approve the heart failure drug BiDil, made by Nitromed, Inc. A clinical trial of the drug among 1,050 black Americans found that it improved the survival rate, compared to those who took a non-medicinal placebo.

While blacks do have a higher rate of heart failure than whites, critics contend that the designation for blacks only is a marketing ploy, since there is no scientific evidence that the medicine works any better in blacks compared to whites.

Two of the advisors who voted to recommend approval on Thursday said the label should not be race-specific, the Associated Press reported.

BiDil's side effects include headache and dizziness, which caused some of the trial participants to drop out, the AP said.

The full FDA is not bound by its expert panels' decisions, but usually follows them.

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Va. Woman Being Kept Alive to Save Fetus

A 26-year-old pregnant woman stricken with brain cancer is being kept alive by respirator in hopes of saving her fetus, USA Today reported Thursday.

Susan Torres, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, lost all sign of brain function last month. An undiagnosed brain tumor caused a stroke, and Torres collapsed May 7 while she dined at her Virginia home. Against the odds, her fetus -- 21 weeks old at the time of Torres' collapse -- appears to be thriving, doctors at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington told the newspaper.

Torres' husband, Jason, chose to keep his wife on a respirator after doctors told him she had no chance of recovery and offered him the chance to disconnect life support, the newspaper said.

If Torres can stay alive another month, the baby could be delivered and has a chance to survive, doctors have said.

Since 1977, at least nine comatose women have given birth in the United States, the newspaper reported.

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Nancy Reagan Hospitalized After Fall

Former first lady Nancy Reagan fell in her London hotel room on Thursday and was briefly hospitalized, the Associated Press reported.

Reagan, who turns 84 on July 6, wasn't badly hurt. She was examined, sent back to her hotel for rest, and told to limit her activities for the next two weeks, a spokeswoman said.

Reagan was on a private trip that included meetings with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles, the wire service said.

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More Americans Seek Treatment for Mental Disorders

Americans with a mental illness are much more likely to receive treatment compared to a decade ago, says a study Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study found that one-third of people with a verified mental disorder now receive treatment, compared with one-fifth of people a decade ago. The greatest increase in treatment was in the primary-care setting. The study said family doctors are now more likely to prescribe drugs for depression or other mental health problems than they were a decade ago, the Associated Press reported.

Rates of mental illness are the same in the United States as they were 10 year ago. However, the study authors said they believe those rates should eventually begin to decline as more people receive treatment.

"I think things are going to move in a good direction, but we're sort of in the midst of it," study leader Ronald Kressler, a Harvard Medical School sociologist, told the AP.

One troubling finding in the study was that Hispanics and blacks with a verified mental illness were only half as likely to receive treatment as whites.

The study was partly funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and several drug companies. Findings from the study were published earlier this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

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Gov't. Foot-Dragging Slows Use of New HIV Test: Critics

U.S. government foot-dragging is delaying widespread use of a new HIV test called NAAT (nucleic acid amplification test), according to some experts.

The test was used about three years ago to detect an outbreak of HIV among 84 black male students at 37 colleges in North Carolina. NAAT was developed by North Carolina health officials, the Associated Press reported.

NAAT detects HIV, and can do that within a week after a person has been infected with the AIDS-causing virus. Conventional HIV tests look for antibodies produced by the body in response to HIV infection. But it can take weeks for these antibodies to show up in a person's blood. That means someone recently infected with HIV would test negative.

NAAT has increased HIV detection by eight percent in San Francisco and by four percent in North Carolina, the AP reported. Even so, the test is not in widespread use. That's because many health officials are waiting for NAAT to be endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the news service said.

CDC officials say more tests are needed to prove NAAT's effectiveness. This week, the CDC announced plans for two clinical trials to assess NAAT.

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Indonesia Reports First Human Case of Bird Flu

Indonesia has reported its first confirmed case of bird flu in a human.

Officials said a farm worker in South Sulawesi tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu, but said the man showed no obvious symptoms of the disease, BBC News reported.

The man's case of bird flu infection was found during routine testing of people who'd worked with infected poultry. Tests showed the man produced antibodies to the bird flu virus but the low level of antibodies suggested that his infection hadn't occurred recently, officials said.

Poultry workers, veterinarians and other people in Indonesia who may have been exposed to bird flu are now being tested, BBC News reported.

In the past 18 months, bird flu has killed at least 53 people in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. World Health Organization officials warn that bird flu has the potential to become a global health threat.

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