Health Highlights: May 16, 2004

FDA to Fast-Track AIDS Drugs Some See Minor Shift in Bush Stem Cell Policy Lawmakers Impatient on Canadian Drug Imports Long Wait for Seniors With Medicare Card Questions Is Volunteering Bad for Your Health?

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

FDA to Fast-Track AIDS Drugs

The White House is expected to announce Sunday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will rapidly approve AIDS drug cocktails that could more cheaply treat people in poor nations.

The Associated Press reported that the program is open to foreign makers of generic drugs, which makes those approved eligible for purchase under the U.S. global AIDS program.

The announcement was expected at a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva.

That is "a real change in policy," Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N. AIDS organization, who has been closely watching the U.S. debate, told the wire service.

The U.S. had called for more stringent standards before approving such drugs, prompting criticism from AIDS advocates that the White House was protecting more expensive, patented medications from American companies.

"This is a big market for them," Piot said of foreign generic makers. Thus, "I see an incentive for brand-name companies to get their act together to pursue fixed-dose combinations, too," the AP quotes him as saying.


Some See Minor Shift in Bush Stem Cell Policy

The Bush administration has reiterated its opposition to continued federal funding of research into stem cells, but some who favor such a move believe they see a minor shift in policy.

The Washington Post reports that National Institutes of Health director Elias A. Zerhouni sent a four-page letter to members of Congress stating that the administration still won't allow money to be spent on stem cells from embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001.

However, the letter included a sentence that supporters of such research see as hint that the policy isn't set in stone, and that a compromise may be reached. That sentence, according to the Post account, reads thusly: "And although it is fair to say that from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research, the president's position is still predicated on his belief that taxpayer funds should not 'sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.'"

Supporters say that the letter at least acknowledges that science could be furthered through research into more stem cell lines. That, the Post says, takes away his scientific argument that the current line is adequate, leaving his opposition strictly on moral grounds.

"I can't imagine they didn't parse this thing very carefully, so it's encouraging that it at least leaves the possibility of discussion concerning a possible expansion," U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) told the newspaper.


Lawmakers Impatient on Canadian Drug Imports

Democratic lawmakers are urging a panel looking into whether drugs should be imported from Canada to speed the process up.

The Associated Press reports that Democratic governors and members of Congress, spurred on by election-year politics, want the task force's report to be completed before the fall. The task force held its final public meeting on Friday.

The recommendations aren't due until after the elections, but Surgeon General Richard Carmona, the panel's chairman, said the report will be turned in sooner.

But Democrats who support importing cheaper drugs from Canada say that's not soon enough, according to the AP account. "We urge you to tell your panel to make any recommendations immediately so that we can proceed," six Democratic governors wrote in a letter to President Bush this week.

The Bush administration and the pharmaceutical industry, citing safety issues, oppose the imports. Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is in favor of them.


Long Wait for Seniors With Medicare Card Questions

A help line the U.S. government established last week to guide seniors with questions on the Medicare discount card is overwhelmed already, the Boston Globe reports.

Medicare administrator Mark McClellan said his agency is aware of the problem, in which people have to wait on the telephone as long as an hour before their questions are answered.

McClellan said that 1,600 operators are standing by to respond to calls to the number, 1-800-MEDICARE, up from 400 less than a year ago. However, he said he would hire "as many [operators] as it takes" to meet the demand, the Globe reported. "We're going to get this in balance as soon as possible."

The Medicare discount cards, which are part of last year's Medicare prescription benefit overhaul, became available earlier this month and take effect in June. The full drug benefits won't be available until 2006.


Is Volunteering Bad for Your Health?

An Australian study suggests that if you do volunteer work, you may be helping others at the expense of your own health.

Researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, asked over 500 people about involvement in voluntary groups, the BBC reports. They found that most of those who did such work linked it with a negative effect on their health.

The team found that over half of the people surveyed had been involved with a voluntary organization in the last year. Almost one in four had been involved in groups associated with sports or leisure, and a significant number had volunteered for work related, community, or social action groups.

Those who responded often spoke about the negative side of volunteer work, such as witnessing difficult situations, according to the BBC account.

"Involvement may not be beneficial for individual health, and that for the individuals involved there is some evidence that this involvement may in fact be detrimental for their own health," the researchers write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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