Health Highlights: March 6, 2004

Ashcroft Remains in Hospital, Condition UnchangedNew Way to Detect Breast Cancer West Nile Blamed on Hybrid North American Mosquito Couples Find In Vitro Fertilization Stressful Group Wants New Cholesterol Drug Pulled Patient Lifts Recalled Over Fall Risk

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

Ashcroft Remains in Hospital, Condition Unchanged

Attorney General John Ashcroft remained in the hospital Saturday, suffering from what doctors said was an inflamed pancreas brought on by gallstones.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Ashcroft was being treated with antibiotics and painkillers and added there had been no change in his condition.

The Associated Press reported that doctors were still looking at test results and evaluating Ashcroft's physical condition before deciding on their next steps, which could include surgery.

Ashcroft, 61, cancelled a scheduled appearance Thursday afternoon in Alexandria, Va., to announce verdicts in a terrorism case, thinking he had a stomach flu, according to a statement by Corallo.

As the day progressed, his condition worsened. Dr. Daniel Parks, the White House physician, visited Ashcroft at his home and urged him to seek emergency care.

Ashcroft was brought to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors determined that he was suffering from acute pancreatitis, Corallo says. He was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, where he is being treated with antibiotics.

Pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas, a large gland behind the abdomen that produces insulin. Pain and vomiting are hallmark symptoms. It can be brought on by alcohol abuse, but in Ashcroft's case -- as often happens with this condition -- it was the result of gallstones blocking the pancreatic duct.

Recovery is often without incident, according to the National Pancreas Foundation.


New Way to Detect Breast Cancer

Three major U.S. university research hospital centers are testing a procedure that may be able to detect breast cancer cells long before a lump develops.

The Associated Press reports the new procedure, which works like a pap smear, detects the precancerous cells in the cervix, could be an effective way to begin treatments for women at a much earlier stage.

"It has quite a bit of potential, which is very exciting," Dr. Victoria Seewaldt, a breast cancer oncologist at Duke, told the wire service.

The pap smear has been used for detecting cervical cancer cells for more than 60 years. The experimental procedure works by extracting breast cells with a needle and determining whether a gene called RAR beta is present. RAR may inhibit cancer cells from developing.

Testing is still in very early stages, with 35 women participating. "We need to be very cautious here," Seewaldt told the wire service. "I don't think this will be used for all women, but as we learn more about who is at increased risk of breast cancer, we hope to be able to determine who has a good chance of getting better."

The tests are being conducted at Duke University Medical Center, University of Kansas Medical Center and Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University.


West Nile Blamed on Hybrid North American Mosquito

Ever since West Nile virus first appeared in North America in 1999, scientists have wondered why the disease has been far more prevalent here than in Europe.

Now, a new study suggests the reason may be found in a hybrid mosquito common to North America that bites both birds and humans, transmitting the virus from one to the other.

European mosquito species tend to bite either birds or humans, but not both, limiting transmission of the potentially fatal disease to people, researchers say in the new issue of the journal Science.

Dina M. Fonseca of the Smithsonian Institution, the study's lead author, said 40 percent of the mosquito population genetically analyzed in the United States are a type of hybrid Culex that will bite both humans and birds, the Associated Press reports.

Since birds are the main source of West Nile, the hybrid Culex serves as a perfect conduit to humans that may not exist to the same extent in Europe, said Fonseca, according to the news service.

But Andrew Spielman of Harvard's School of Public Health said in the same issue of the journal that he suspects West Nile has created more health problems in the United States because the virus is new to North America. Europeans, he added, have been exposed to the virus for centuries, the AP says.


Couples Find In Vitro Fertilization Stressful

A Swedish study finds that many couples quit in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment because they find it causes too many relationship and psychological problems.

The BBC reports that of 974 couples undergoing IVF, 242 discontinued the treatment.

The study, appearing in the journal Fertility and Sterility, found that 26 percent of those who opted out did so because of psychological problems and 15 percent reported marriage woes.

Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, told the BBC that many couples drop out of IVF treatment because they have misconceptions about it.

"They really believe this is going to sort it out for them straight away and the facts are that it won't necessarily solve it for them straight away," she says. "They have inflated expectations."


Group Wants New Cholesterol Drug Pulled

The watchdog group Public Citizen is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to pull the cholesterol drug Crestor from the market only months after it was approved.

Citing reports that some patients on the drug suffered from life-threatening kidney failure and muscle damage, the group called upon the FDA to remove Crestor "immediately," adding that Public Citizen had warned of these complications before the drug was approved in August.

A 39-year-old woman in the United States died from those complications, and Public Citizen says it has counted nine cases of kidney damage and seven cases of muscle damage in the United States, Canada, and England since Crestor was approved.

Another statin, Baycol, was removed from the market for similar reasons. However, says Dr. Sidney Wolfe, leader of Public Citizen Health Research Group, those cases happened after Baycol was approved; in Crestor's case, the problems happened during clinical trials.

Crestor's maker, AstraZeneca, has launched a direct-to-consumer advertising campaign. In addition to the cases, Public Citizen says two major U.S. health insurers and the Swedish government are refusing to cover the drug.

AstraZeneca says that the drug is "generally well-tolerated," but that it should be prescribed "with caution" to patients with kidney trouble.


Patient Lifts Recalled Over Fall Risk

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced the recall of patient lifts because of a faulty design in a key bolt that could cause a patient to fall.

These lifts, commonly used in hospitals and nursing homes, are designed to move a patient from one place to another, such as from a bed to a bathroom.

This batch of lifts, made in Denmark and distributed by Moving Solutions Inc., of Downers Grove, Ill., has a bad main bolt connecting the lifting arm to the main frame. When the bolt breaks, the FDA reports, the arm becomes disconnected, which can result in a fall.

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