Health Highlights: March 9, 2004

Ashcroft Has Successful Gallbladder Surgery New Drug Helps Smokers Quit -- And Keeps Pounds Off Celibacy Vow Does Little to Reduce STD Risk Tai Chi Helps People with Chronic Health Problems Anthrax Drugs Show Promise Asthma Rates Rose Near Ground Zero FDA Approves Drug for Overactive Parathyroid

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

Ashcroft Has Successful Gallbladder Surgery

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft successfully underwent surgery to remove his gallbladder Tuesday at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He entered the hospital on March 4 complaining of stomach pain, and was eventually diagnosed with a severe case of gallstone pancreatitis.

"Everything went as planned. He did very well," Dr. Bruce Abell, who performed the procedure, told the Associated Press.

Ashcroft was listed in guarded condition and would probably remain in the hospital for observation for four to five days, Abell said.

Gallstones can cause pancreatitis and they usually require surgical removal. After the stones are removed and inflammation goes away, the pancreas usually returns to normal, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some people have more than one attack and recover completely after each attack.

But acute pancreatitis can be a severe, life-threatening illness with many complications. About 80,000 cases occur in the United States each year, with some 20 percent of them severe. Acute pancreatitis occurs more often in men than women, the NIH says.

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New Drug Helps Smokers Quit -- And Keeps Pounds Off

A new drug called rimonabant appears to help smokers quit and to limit their weight gain after they kick the habit, says a University of Cincinnati College of Medicine study.

The study found that, compared to a placebo, rimonabant doubled smokers' odds of quitting and greatly reduced the amount of weight they gained 10 weeks after they quit.

The study, called Studies with Rimonabant and Tobacco Use (STRATUS-US), is one of the largest smoking cessation trials ever conducted in the United States. It included 787 smokers and was done at 11 sites across the country.

Rimonabant is the first in a new class of drugs called selective CB1 blockers. The drug works by inhibiting the CB1 receptor, which plays a role in tobacco dependency, the researchers say.

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Celibacy Vow Does Little to Reduce STD Risk

Taking a vow of celibacy doesn't seem to offer American teens much protection against contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), according to a study of 12,000 adolescents ages 12 to 18.

The results show that teens who make a public pledge to abstain from sex until they're married have fewer sex partners and get married at an earlier age than those who don't take a vow of abstinence, the Associated Press reports.

However, both groups have similar STD rates. The study says that's because the adolescents who vow abstinence are less likely to use condoms.

"It's difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you're not going to have sex," study co-author Peter Bearman, chairman of the sociology department at Columbia University, told the AP.

"The message is really simple: 'Just say no' may work in the short term but doesn't work in the long term," Bearman said.

Data from the study was presented Tuesday at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia.

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Tai Chi Helps People with Chronic Health Problems

Tai Chi may benefit people with chronic health problems such as multiple sclerosis or heart disease, according to a study by researchers at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston.

The researchers analyzed 47 studies that examined the impact Tai Chi had on people with chronic health problems. They found that this ancient form of exercise improved flexibility, balance control, heart health and reduced anxiety, pain, falls and stress, BBC News Online reports.

The findings were published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

"Overall, these studies reported that long-term Tai Chi practice had favourable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in elders," the authors write.

Tai Chi, which is thousands of years old, combines slow movements and deep breathing.

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Anthrax Drugs Show Promise

Two experimental drugs designed to ward off the deadly effects of anthrax infection are showing promise in animal tests, indicating efforts to devise an effective treatment for the bioterror threat may eventually pay off, the Washington Post reports.

Maryland-based Human Genome Sciences and New Jersey-based Elusys Therapeutics are developing similar drugs to mimic the body's natural proteins that fight off invading germs, the newspaper says. According to both firms, tests on rabbits and mice indicate that if administered immediately ahead of time, the drugs appear to protect against the lethal effects of inhaling anthrax spores.

The drugs are in various stages of testing and scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and could still be several years away, the Post reports.

The two companies and others have been working on medications to counter the deadly bacterium since a still-unidentified source sent anthrax spores through the mail to several East Coast journalists and Capitol Hill leaders in the fall of 2001. Five people died, 18 were sickened, and thousands more were forced to take strong antibiotics as a precaution.

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Asthma Rates Rose Near Ground Zero

A new study appears to contradict federal assurances that the air near Manhattan's Ground Zero was safe to breathe following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Associated Press reports of a new study.

In the year following the attacks, asthma-related medical visits jumped significantly for children living near the former World Trade Center site, Stony Brook University researchers conclude.

Federal environmental officials announced a week after the attacks that the air in downtown Manhattan was safe to breathe. But a review panel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since criticized the agency for what it deemed misleading health assurances, the AP reports.

In the year before the attacks, 306 children made 1,044 asthma-related visits to a health clinic in nearby Chinatown. That number jumped to 510 patients and 1,554 visits in the year after the twin towers' collapse, the Stony Brook researchers say.

Results of their research appear in the March issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

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FDA Approves Hyperparathyroidism Drug

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first drug in a new class of compounds designed to treat certain patients with hyperparathyroidism or parathyroid cancer.

The parathyroid glands are four pea-sized glands located on the thyroid gland in the neck. Though their names are similar, the thyroid and parathyroid glands are separate glands, each producing distinct hormones with specific functions. The parathyroid glands secrete parathyroid hormone (PTH), a substance that helps maintain the correct balance of calcium and phosphorous in the body.

If the glands secrete too much hormone, as in hyperparathyroidism, the balance is disrupted and blood calcium rises. Symptoms include mental confusion, fatigue, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and kidney damage.

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