Health Highlights: May 7, 2004

Critics Hit FDA Action on Morning-After Pill Near-Retirees Who Lose Job Twice as Likely to Suffer Stroke Latest Angioplasty Warning: Radiation Burns FDA to Examine Effects of Furan Found in Food Court Overrules Gov. Bush in Florida Right-to-Die Case

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

Critics Hit FDA Action on Morning-After Pill

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has added a new hurdle before allowing a controversial emergency contraceptive to be sold on a nonprescription basis, but denied allegations the move was politically motivated, HealthDay reported.

The pill in question is levonorgestrel, better known as Plan B or the "morning after" pill. On Thursday, the FDA informed the pill's maker that it can't be sold over the counter until more studies are done.

Critics said the latest action of the FDA, which ignores the advice of two expert advisory committees and the agency's own staff, was a triumph of politics over science. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists went so far as to call it "morally repugnant," a "tragedy for American women, and a dark stain" on the agency's reputation.

The move ostensibly arose from concern that young teenagers would not be able to use the product safely. "We based our action primarily on the lack of data concerning use of this product among adolescents younger than 16," Dr. Steven Galson, acting director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), said at a press conference Friday. "The sponsors didn't contain any data on those under 14 and limited data on those 14 to 16."

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Near-Retirees Who Lose Job Twice as Likely to Suffer Stroke

People nearest to retirement who get laid off or fired have double the stroke risk of colleagues who have kept their jobs, a new study says.

The research team, led by Yale University epidemiologist William Gallo, was able to make the association between losing one's job and having a stroke. Interestingly, however, the same risk was not found for having a heart attack under the same circumstances.

According to a news release from the Yale School of Medicine, the basis of the study was six years of data from a national Health and Retirement Survey, which identified 457 workers who were either laid off or left jobless because of a plant shutdown. These individuals were compared to a group of 3,763 older persons who were still employed. All of the participants were born between 1931 and 1941.

Why stroke risk increases while heart attack risk does not requires further study, Gallo said. "With longer follow-up, we will be able to more definitively assess the relationship between unemployment and stroke," he added.

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Latest Angioplasty Warning: Radiation Burns

The latest alert about angioplasty has nothing to do with clogged arteries.

According to the Associated Press, X-rays used during angioplasty can cause severe skin burns, and one of the primary reasons is because cardiologists haven't received sufficient training on minimizing radiation exposure.

Experts from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency explained the problem during a two-day meeting in Vienna, and while experts said the radiation risk was evident, the advantages of angioplasty still far outweighed the possible danger.

Angioplasty is a procedure that opens clogged arteries without performing major surgery. A catheter attached to a balloon is threaded through the blood vessels to open a blocked artery by squeezing the plaque against the walls. Physicians often use fluoroscopy, a technique that provides live X-ray images, to guide the catheter insertion.

According to the wire service, because radiation used in fluoroscopy is much stronger than normal X-rays, a small number of patients suffer skin damage. Some could later develop cancer because of the exposure, said one expert, and that's why further training is necessary.

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FDA to Examine Effects of Furan Found in Food

Furan is a naturally occurring substance found in pine trees and other plants. Its derivative is also manufactured as a pesticide.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was going to assess the possible carcinogenic possibilities of food that may contain very low levels of furan.

While not naming specific foods, the FDA said: "Some animal data suggests that high levels of furan exposure might have a carcinogenic effect in humans, but its true effects in humans - especially at such very low levels -- are not known.

"A new method developed by FDA scientists has revealed that very low levels of furan are found in a wider range of foods than previously suspected. FDA scientists discovered that furan forms in a variety of foods that undergo heat treatment, including certain canned and jarred foods. FDA tested a variety of foods and the results ranged from non-detectable levels in some foods to approximately 100 parts per billion in other foods."

The agency hasn't yet determined how long the testing will take. After an advisory committee meeting, the FDA will decide on a number of possible next steps, including, its statement said, "an expanded food survey, studies to address how furan forms in foods, potential strategies to reduce furan levels, and toxicology studies to address mechanisms of toxicity and dose response."

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Court Overrules Gov. Bush in Florida Right-to-Die Case

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush violated the rights of a severely brain-damaged woman when he ordered that her feeding tube be reinserted last fall against the wishes of her husband, a state judge has ruled.

The governor's office immediately began filing an appeal to Thursday's ruling, the Miami Herald reports.

Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird stuck down the state Legislature's hastily enacted bill that gave Bush the authority to reinsert Terry Schiavo's feeding tube. The judge's opinion said the controversial "Terry's Law" was unconstitutional and amounted to "unjustifiable state interference with the privacy right of every individual without any semblance of due process protection."

Schiavo, now 40, left no living will or other directive before her heart stopped 14 years ago. She has since been in what doctors have called a "severe vegetative state," and her husband, Michael, has tried for years to have her feeding tube removed. Terry Schiavo's parents vehemently opposed the move.

Following an original court ruling last fall, Schiavo's tube was removed for several days until the Legislature and Bush -- President Bush's brother -- intervened.

Ken Conner, the lead attorney for Gov. Bush and the former head of the conservative Family Research Council, said Thursday's ruling had been expected. He predicted the case would be decided by the state Supreme Court, and could even wind up in a federal court if lower court judges continue to strike down Bush's right to intervene on Terry Schiavo's behalf, the Herald reported.

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